A Vanilla Voyage: Exploring the Spice's Legacy in Central America and the Carribean

By Jason Lopez

Aug 12 2023

Vanilla planifolia, commonly known as vanilla, is one of the most instantly recognizable and desirable spices in the world, and has an almost ubiquitous presence in our lives, from the cakes and ice creams we eat, to the soaps and perfumes we luxuriate in, and to even the cleaning products and aromatics we use to fill our homes with its signature, intoxicating fragrance. Vanilla’s warm, sweet, and sensuous notes have a transformative, almost magical quality, capable of suffusing a space with a decadent aroma that can deliver even the most addled, anxious mind to a state of soothing bliss. 

Vanilla is known for being a rather challenging plant to cultivate and process. This largely stems from vanilla’s physical characteristics and the amount of labor involved to ensure that the spice develops its signature aroma. This orchid only thrives in lush, tropical environments, such as those in southeastern Mexico (where it is orignally native), South America, the Caribbean, and Madagascar. Each flower blooms for only one day, and thus must be pollinated quickly in order for the plant to bear fruit. The vanilla fruit appears as a long green pod which contains a myriad of small brown seeds. 

The primary reason why vanilla did not fruit when plants were first brought back to Europe was because they then lacked their co-evolved pollinators, orchid bees in the genera Melipona and Eularma. (Cameron, 153). This is further complicated by the fact that Vanilla planifolia cannot  naturally self-pollinate because  of the rostellum within the flower that separates the reproductive organs. Edmund Albius, an enslaved African boy living in Réunion in the 1800s, is responsible for discovering a practical yet ingenious method of bending the rostellum with a thin stick so that the stigma and pollen could meet and thus self-fertilize (Cameron, 19).  This technique was so impactful that it continues to be used today.

Another surprising characteristic of vanilla is that its signature flavor and aroma is only developed through a process of curing, which converts the “non-aromatic precursor molecule, glucovanillin… into vanillin” (Cameron, 166). Aside from its culinary usage, vanillin is also known for a host of medicinal benefits, including “biological activities such as an antioxidant, antitumorigenic, tranquilizer and antidepressant” (Labuda, 459).

The combination of the lengthy challenge of growing, manually pollinating each and every flower, allowing the fruit to ripen, and then further processing the vanilla pods to develop the desirable vanillin, makes vanilla one of the most laborious and expensive spices with prices reaching highs of $500 USD per kilogram to $5000 USD per kilogram during vanilla shortages (Cameron, 9). This has consequently given the industry surrounding vanilla its reputation for being highly exploitative in all corners of the world where it is grown.  

Venture onward to explore the origin of vanilla and its role in the erupting conflict between the Totonac and the Aztecs in Central America during the 15th century. Then, discover how Vanilla planifolia made its way to Puerto Rico in the 20th century, where it continues to be a great source of pride for vanilla farmers and inspired Puerto Rican delicacies such as coquito and flan.

A Closer Look

Jason Lopez is a summer intern in the Urban Foodways Internship program. Generous support for the program is provided by the Mellon Foundation


Cameron, Kenneth Michael. Vanilla Orchids: Natural History and Cultivation. Timber Press, 2012.
Hernández‐Hernández, Juan. “Mexican Vanilla Production.” Handbook of Vanilla Science and Technology, edited by Daphna Havkin-Frenkel and Faith C. Belanger, 2nd ed., Wiley Blackwell, 2019, pp. 3-25.
Labuda, Ivica. “Biotechnology of Vanillin: Vanillin from Microbial Sources.” Handbook of Vanilla Science and Technology, edited by Daphna Havkin-Frenkel and Faith C. Belanger, 2nd ed., Wiley Blackwell, 2019, pp. 459-488.