111. Vanilla

Notice the vanilla orchid climbing the brick wall in front of you, at the western end of the Garden Court. This plant isn’t prized for its exotic flower, but for the seed pod that develops after the flower is pollinated.

Vanilla originated in Central America and tropical Mexico. Indigenous people there developed a process for curing and heating the pods to draw out the vanilla flavor. Today, most vanilla is grown in Madagascar and Indonesia, where the flowers must be pollinated by hand.

Once pollination is successful, vanilla pods take three to six months to mature on the vine. They must then be processed by hand for over two months to develop the compound vanillin, which provides the characteristic aroma and flavor of vanilla.

The plant you see here is Vanilla planifolia, the primary source of “real” vanilla. By weight, it is one of the world’s most valuable spices. But the vanilla fragrance and flavor in many products comes from what is labeled as “natural” vanilla. These contain vanillin that is derived from fermenting other plants, such as corn or rice.

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