The Vanilla Plant and Edmond

By Rashad Bell, Nuala Caomhanach

Feb 20 2020

Vanilla planifolia is the only orchid of significant economic importance as an edible crop. Vanilla is a vine with a sprawling growth habit. When it flowers it is visited by numerous pollinators, and produces bunches of long-stringy beans. If properly treated, those beans give off the smell and flavor of vanilla. By the 18th century, demand for vanilla shot sky high. Plants were brought to the botanical gardens in Paris and London where botanists tried to encourage the plant to fruit. No beans meant no vanilla extract and no product to sell. The plant needed a pollinator but nobody knew how the bees did it.

Edmond Albius was a 12-year old enslaved Black boy on a plantation in Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean.  In the early 1800s, the French Empire was keen to increase their economic output and compete against the growing empires of Europe. When Bellier-Beaumont received a bunch of Vanilla plants from Paris but only one survived. It never fruited.

In 1841, Edmond showed his owner Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont two vanilla beans hanging from the vine. Edmond explained that he had produced those fruits himself, by hand-pollination. His owner was in disbelief. Edmond invented a quick method to pollinate the vanilla orchid. Using a thin stick or blade, Edmond lifted the projecting part of the flower (rostellum) that separates the pollen from the stigma. With his thumbs, he crushed the pollen and stigma together. Bellier-Beaumont wrote long letters to his fellow plantation owners telling them that Edmond had solved this botanical mystery. Edmond was sent from plantation to plantation to teach other enslaved people how to fertilize the vanilla vine. The Vanilla Industry was born.

At the end of 1848, all enslaved people in the colony of Réunion were emancipated. Edmond would become a freeman and given a last name, Albius.

A Closer Look


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