Vanilla beans, or pods, are the fruit of the orchid Vanilla planifolia,which is native to the tropical forest of Mexico. In the wild, vanilla grows as a thick green vine. It produces clusters of trumpet shaped, celadon colored flowers. These small flowers usually bloom for just one day and can only be pollinated by the tiny Melipona bee. If the delicate flowers are not pollinated they drop to the ground and no vanilla beans are produced.
The ancient Totonaco Indians of Southeastern Mexico were the first people to discover the secret of vanilla. They believed vanilla was a food of the Gods. When the Aztecs conquered the Totonaco, they adopted many of their beliefs. In 1518, the Spanish conquistadores, led by Herman Cortez, came to Mexico and observed the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, drinking choclatl. This beverage of ground cocoa and corn was flavored withtlilxochitl (cured vanilla beans) and honey.
Cortez fell in love with cholatl'srich flavor and aroma and introduced both cocoa and vanilla to Spain. Spanish chefs started making "vainilla" (little sheath) flavored chocolate and for 100 years it was consumed by nobility and the very rich. Vainilla was later anglicized to vanilla.
Until the later part of the 18th century, Mexico was the sole producer of vanilla. While attempts were made to cultivate the vines in other tropical parts of the world, because the secret of the Melipona bee was not known, the vines did not produce beans.
In early 1800's the French took cuttings from Mexico to Reunion Island, which was then known as the Ile de Bourbon(the surname of the Kings of France). The plants flourished and flowered, but with no Melipona bees on the island, no beans were produced.
In 1837 the Belgian botanist Morren succeeded in artificially pollinating the vanilla flower. On Reunion Morren's process was attempted, but failed. It was not until 1841 that a 12 year old slave by the name of Edmond Albius discovered the correct technique of hand pollinating the flowers. Vanilla was soon taken to the neighboring French possessions of Madagascar, Comoro and Santa Maria. By 1898 about 200 tons of Vanilla beans a year were being produced by these islands.
Today, vanilla is grown in Madagascar, the Comoro and Reunion Islands, India, Uganda, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Mexico. Vanilla is also cultivated in Tahiti. The Vanilla planifolia vines planted in Tahiti, however, mutated and the plants are now classified as a separate species Vanilla tahitensis.