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Vanilla growing in Eden's Rainforest Biome

David tells the story of the labour-intensive production of vanilla.

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  • Originally native to Central America, vanilla is now cultivated and exported mainly from Madagascar, Mexico, Reunion, Tahiti and Indonesia.
  • The vine can climb to 30m tall, so plantations grow it on trees or poles and fold the plant down to a height that can be reached for harvesting.
  • It’s the second most expensive spice after saffron as its production is so labour-intensive. The flowers are hand pollinated, with an average worker pollinating 1,000–2,000 flowers per day. After eight months, the nearly ripe fruits are harvested and dipped in hot water to stop further ripening and are then sun-dried for five months. To sidestep this lengthy, expensive process, flavourings have been synthesised that resemble the taste of real vanilla.

Where it grows

Central and northern South America (Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay), Madagascar, Seychelles.

Common uses

The sweet, slightly smoky taste is a popular flavouring for ice cream and other sweet dishes.

The Totonac tribe of Mexico is credited with being the first to use vanilla as a flavouring, possibly over a thousand years ago. Their favourite drink, ‘chocolatl’, was made from powdered cocoa beans, ground corn and vanilla pods. Conquistador Hernan Cortes of Spain introduced vanilla to Europe in the early 16th century. Old Totonac lore says that Xanat, the young daughter of the Mexican fertility goddess, loved a Totonac youth. Unable to marry him due to her divine nature, she transformed herself into a plant that would provide pleasure and happiness. She became the vanilla orchid so that she could forever belong to her human love and his people. The local people still celebrate a vanilla festival to this day.

Vanilla is also used in aromatherapy and its fragrance is said to calm, relax and soften anger, frustrations and irritability.


  • Capsule: dry fruit that opens by valves, slits or pores to release seeds (dehiscent) and is composed of two or more united carpels (the basic unit of the female sexual organ).