Vanilla, from the Spanish vainilla, diminutive of vaina, meaning little pod. Vaina from the Latin vagina, also meaning pod or sheath. Spanish explorers arriving on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the early sixteenth century gave vanilla its current name. Previously the Aztecs called it tlilxochitl, black flower. Before that, the Totonacs called it xanath, hidden flower. The Totonac people of eastern Mexico were among the first to cultivate it.
It was in the tropical lowlands of Mesoamerica that this climbing orchid first grew and became entangled with humans. Legend has it that the vanilla orchid bloomed out of the blood of a Totonac princess, Tzacopontziza, when she was accidentally killed alongside her captor. The princess died but vanilla arose in her place to perfume the air with her enchanting smell.
For the Totonacs vanilla, xanath, was a sacred offering. They were the primary merchants of vanilla in ancient Mesoamerica. It would not be hard to believe that when the Aztecs crossed the central highlands to conquer the Totonacs, it was vanilla they sought. The Aztecs used it to make xocolatl, a rich beverage made of cacao, vanilla extract and chili. For almost a hundred years the region of Totonacapan was subjected to the reign of the Aztecs, and it was with vanilla that they were expected to pay most of their tribute.
When the Spanish arrived in present day Mexico, the Totonac coastal city of Cempoala was the first to receive a visit. They were heading for the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan in a mission to overthrow the powerful empire. Being old enemies, the Cempoala Totonacs joined the Spanish in their fight against the Aztecs. They were one of two indigenous groups that contributed to the success of what later came to be known as the Mexican conquest.
In return for their favorable contribution, the Totonacs, and their sacred vanilla, were incorporated into the new Spanish regime and thus into the global market. It was the British and the French who were the first to give vanilla uses in perfumery and baking. Soon, vast expanses of land had to be allocated for its production in Mexico, in order to satisfy the growing demand for this climbing orchid’s extract.
The Totonacs cultivated vanilla in the wild, which was pollinated naturally by its evolutionary partner, the melipona bee. But this ancient relationship was about to be drastically changed. When the first vanilla orchid flowered in Europe, it was exhibited in the London Collection of the Honorable at the National Gallery in 1806. Cuttings from this specific plant were sent to the French and the Dutch, and in 1819 French entrepreneurs shipped vanilla pods to the colonial islands of Reunion and Mauritius off the Western Coast of Africa.
They had managed to take vanilla across the world, only to realize that away from its natural environment the orchid flowered, but it did not produce its coveted pods.
Like all orchids, vanilla is a sensitive plant, highly affected by its surroundings, its neighboring plants and animals, as well as the climate and geology of its ecosystem. Orchids are some of the oldest flowering plants on the planet and have therefore developed incredibly specialized reproductive strategies as a way to adapt to the changing Earth. For millions and millions of years the tiny melipona bee had evolved to be the only creature capable of pollinating the vanilla orchid. It was only natural then, that vanilla didn’t produce fruit in Reunion or Mauritius, where the melipona bee did not exist.
Determined, Europeans tried to introduce the melipona bee to their colonial islands; yet again, the orchid flowered but did not produce a pod. Years passed hopelessly until in 1841 a twelve year old enslaved boy from Reunion, by the name of Edmund Albius, figured out how to use a small stick to artificially pollinate the vanilla orchid. It wasn’t long before the tropical orchids and their pollination instructions were sent from Reunion, to Comoros Islands, to Seychelles, to Madagascar.
By the end of the century, the Totonacs were no longer the primary producers of vanilla, and neither were the melipona bee their primary pollinators. In 1898 these Western African islands produced eighty percent of the world’s vanilla. Today, Madagascar alone is the world’s biggest producer of vanilla and its price is partly established by natural phenomena, such as cyclones, which affect its production. In 2018, after Cyclone Enawo brutally hit Madagascar, a kilogram of vanilla came to be worth more than one of silver.
Still, somewhere in the tropical lowlands of Verazruz, a Totonac vanillera cultivates xanath the old natural way. Instead of ice cream or a luxurious cake, she gives the climbing orchids fragrant pods as an offering to the Gods in an important harvest ceremony.
By Ana Lucia Ralda