Vanilla planifolia / Vanilla fragrans

Herbs gallery - Vanilla

Common names

  • Vanilla

The Vanilla Orchid is a member of the Orchidaceae and is also called Vanilla planifolia or Vanilla fragrans. This species is among an assortment of vines found in abundance in Mexico. Although commercial cultivation of vanilla is done outdoors, this plant grows best indoors along with other houseplants.

Hernan Cortes, the well known navigator, was the first to discover this vine in Mexico and carry the vanilla plant to Europe. Before Cortes discovered this aromatic plant, the Aztecs made use of vanilla to add essence to a popular chocolate drink.

Edmond Albius was the first to grow vanilla domestically or non-commercially during the middle of the 19th century. In fact, Albius was a slave inhabiting the French island Reunion near Madagascar.

The credit for the first manual pollination of the vanilla flower is also attributed to Edmond Albius. The manual pollination of the vanilla flowers that bloom only for a day, leads to the development of a 'bean' that is used as a spice and also remedial processes.

The most concentrated as well as balanced variety of vanilla in the world is known as the 'Bourbon' and it comes from the Reunion Island. It needs to be mentioned here that Madagascar was the first nation to produce vanilla commercially.

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One may find around 60 different species of vanilla all over the tropical climatic regions of America and this included Bahamas as well as Florida. All these species are essentially vines and some of them do not bear any leaf.

The most common as well as popular among these vines, the Vanilla Planifolia has a green and fleshy appearance. The name of the species 'planifolia' is derived from the Latin term denoting 'flat leaved'.

It is interesting to note that vanilla is the only orchid found anywhere that produces edible fruits. However, the procedure to transform the raw vanilla beans into a spice is not only very long, but arduous and complicated too.

This explains why this  spice is still among the costliest in the world. As the vanilla flowers remain in bloom just for a day, pollination is essentially done manually and this is a very labor-intensive task. The vanilla beans enclose pods that need to be blanched before drying.

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Parts used



Vanilla is a scented tonic. This herb is believed to invigorate the brain, augment the vigor of the muscles, avert sleep as well as kindle the sexual competence. An infusion prepared with vanilla is effective in treating rheumatism, low varieties of fever as well as hysteria.

Vanilla is said to be an aphrodisiac and enhances and excites the reproductive system. In addition, vanilla is extensively used in preparing perfumes, and adding essence to confectionery, tinctures, creams, syrups and so on.

Ancient medical texts include mention about vanilla. In these texts the herb is expressed as an aphrodisiac or sex inducing substance as well as a cure for different types of fevers. However, these supposed utilities of vanilla have never been validated by any scientific research.

Nevertheless, several scientific studies have demonstrated that vanilla helps in enhancing the intensity of catecholamines (any of a group of chemically related neurotransmitters), including epinephrine now known as adrenaline and dopamine. Vanilla may also be described as a little addictive substance.

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In-vitro (an artificial environment outside the living organism) trial of vanilla has demonstrated that it is competent enough to obstruct quorum sensing in bacteria.

This property of vanilla is significant from the medical point of view as in several bacteria quorum sensing signals operate as a control regarding the capability of a microorganism to spread diseases (virulence). It is important to note that the microorganisms only turn potent when the pointers specify that they have the numbers to defy the host immune system response.

Culinary uses

For several hundreds of years, vanilla has been popular for its culinary as well as therapeutic properties equally. Incidentally, medical practitioners as well as cooks around the world value this herb highly for the benefits it offers them respectively.

The usage of vanilla in culinary has a long history and is held in high esteem in the culinary world owing to its aptitude to add essence to sweet and sensual desserts like sugar cookies, ice cream, butter creams and puff pastries.

The mellow fragrance of vanilla augments the flavor of an assortment of sweet dishes, including puddings, cakes, creams, custards and soufflés. The essence of vanilla may also be found in a number of chocolate and confectionery items as well as numerous liqueurs, including Galliano and Crème de Cacao.

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Although vanilla has a rich and profound history in culinary, the herbs reputation as a sex inducing substance as well as other herbal benefits are relatively lesser known. In fact, the aphrodisiac and herbal benefit of vanilla dates back to their discovery in Mesoamerica by prehistoric societies who farmed and valued this sweet orchid.

In Europe, people in many countries held vanilla in high esteem for its essence, its tradition as a love concoction as well as its therapeutic properties. It is interesting to note that though the conventional remedial uses of vanilla has have long die away, the conventional usage of vanilla has undergone little change.

However, contemporary scientific researches have once again brought the therapeutic properties as well as the active elements of vanilla to the light.

Basically, there are three major commercial productions from natural vanilla and they include:

  • The entire pod of the plant.
  • Vanilla powder or grounded pods that is stored in pure form or combined with sugar, starch or other constituents.
  • Vanilla extract often blended with alcoholic or sometimes glycerol solutions. It may be noted here that the pure as well as the synthetic varieties of vanilla enclose a minimum of 35 per cent alcohol.

In order to obtain a more potent perfume of vanilla, split the pods into halves and expose more of the pod's exterior to the liquid. In such a case, the seeds of the vanilla pods are blended into the preparation.

It may be noted that the natural vanilla imparts a brown or yellowish hue to preparations based on the concentration or intensity of the herbal extract in the liquid. Superior quality of vanilla has a potent aromatic essence, but is very expensive.

Hence, most food items are prepared with little amounts of inferior quality vanilla or synthetic vanilla whose essence is akin to the natural vanilla.

Vanilla is extensively used to add essence to ice cream and, hence, the most ice creams have a vanilla flavor. This is one of the primary reasons why most people think that ice creams usually come in vanilla flavor by 'default'.

Interestingly, while vanilla is itself a valued flavoring agent, the herb is also made use of in increasing the essence of other substances where the flavor of vanilla is often that of a harmonizing agent. Custard, chocolates, coffee, caramel and other substances are instances of this aspect.

It needs to be mentioned here that the food industry usually uses methyl and ethyl vanillin. While ethyl vanillin is costlier, it possesses a more potent essence. Vanilla is even used by the cosmetic industry in the manufacture of different scents. In addition, aromatherapy makes use of the essential oils derived from vanilla and vanillin.

Habitat and cultivation

Growing vanilla in the vanilla orchids is not only an extremely arduous task, but also involves a lot of labor. The plants normally begin producing vanilla beans only when they are three years old. And when the plants eventually bear flowers, the blooms remain open only for a day and this requires quick and careful pollination within 12 hours of their blossoming.

This is easier said than done, for the flowers are blooming daily at different times and the flowering season continues for a number of weeks. After the pollination, it takes complete nine months for the vanilla beans to become mature enough for harvesting.

What is more arduous is the fact that individual pods mature at different times and they need to be hand plucked from the vines. This denotes that like in the instance of pollinating the flowers manually over several weeks, the farm workers need to harvest the vanilla beans daily for around three to four weeks every time.

After the harvesting is over, it takes another three months to process or cure the vanilla pods before they may be sold in the commercial market.

There is no way that the production of pure vanilla extract may be rushed through and this is the primary reason why this liquid spice is so costly even today. The vanilla orchids are perennial plants having around six inches plump foliage that has a yellowish green hue.

The vanilla plants have a preference for neutral soil with pH ranging between 6.6 and 7.5. The plants bear flowers during the period between the middle of spring to the latter part of summer, but remain in bloom only for a day.

The flowers of the vanilla plant have a tubular shape and are about five inches in diameter. These flowers have different hues - yellow, white or green. All the flowers are manually pollinated within 12 hours of their blooming by the gardeners. Following the successful pollination, the plants bear seed pods that range between 6 inches and 10 inches in length and mature after nine months.

The plants can be potted in large containers having sufficient humus. In addition, the potting medium should be well-draining and the soil needs to be blended particularly for the orchids. Care needs to be taken to keep the soil consistently moist all the year around as the vanilla plants detest their roots becoming dry between two watering periods.

The vanilla plants are actually vines that require some kind of support to climb and cling on to. Wood or stakes serve as ideal props to support the vanilla vines.

The vanilla orchids require extreme humidity and extra effort needs to be made to provide this for the plants to flourish. In addition, they need to be cultivated in such locations where the temperature does not fall below 55°F during the nights. Basically, the vanilla orchids like to grow in the shade for most of the time, but at times they also require some filtered or indirect sunlight.

When vanilla orchids are propagated by the stem cutting method, it is a quite simple process. Use a sterilized cutting tool to cut off a portion of the plant at the top having a node with well grown aerial roots just beneath. The cut portion of the plant having aerial roots is then put in a pot or a flat tray containing very damp sphagnum moss.

When the new cutting develops fresh roots, it can be potted in any orchid growing container. In case there is a new growth from the original cutting, just cut away the old part or the segment cut from the mature plant and allow the new growth to develop actively as a new plant.

It is not very difficult for a beginner to grow the vanilla plant, scientific name V. planifolia. This plant grows best in a greenhouse and also indoors along with other houseplants.


Newly harvested vanilla beans enclose an odorless substance called vanillin glucoside. Following the harvesting of the vanilla beans, this glycoside is broken by means of a labor-intensive fermenting procedure giving up the perfumed free vanillin. The chemical composition of vanillin is 4-hydroxy 3-methoxy benzaldehyde.

The completely fermented vanilla beans or fruits enclose approximately 2 per cent vanillin. However, the vanillin content in the fruits varies from plants grown in one region to another.

While the vanillin content in Mexico is 1.75 per cent, in Sri Lanka it is 1.5 per cent and in Indonesia it is 2.75 per cent. The crystallized vanillin is usually visible on the surface of the vanilla pods of exceptionally superior quality in the shape of minute white needles known as 'givre' (the French term for 'frost').

In addition to vanillin, which comprises around 85 per cent of the entire volatiles, the vanilla pods also enclose vital fragrance elements such as around nine per cent of p-hydroxy benz-aldehyde and one per cent of p-hydroxybenzyl methyl ether. Some trace elements enclosed by the vanilla pods also contribute significantly to its essence.

So far, researchers have been able to recognize around 130 different elements in vanilla extract, including phenol ether, phenoles, carbonyl compounds, alcohols, ester, acids, lactones, heterocyclic compounds and aliphatic and aromatic carbohydrates.

It has been found that two stereoisomeric vitispiranes, namely, 2,10,10-trimethyl-1,6- and methylidene-1-oxaspiro(4,5)dec-7-ene, also add to the fragrance of vanilla. However, these substances are found in very diminutive amounts in the vanilla extract.

According to traditional perception, the aroma of the Tahiti vanilla is somewhat different from the varieties found elsewhere primarily owing to the presence of about 1.7 per cent vanilline and some extra elements of piperonal (heliotropin, 3,4-dioxymethylenbenzaldehyde) and diacetyl (butandione).

However, this perception regarding the aroma of Tahiti vanilla has been challenged when a research conducted on this variety of vanilla showed no sign of any presence of piperonal. However, the researchers found that the Tahiti vanilla enclosed vanillin, anisic acid, anisyl alcohol and little quantities of 3-anisaldehyde as well as the more familiar 4-anisaldehyde.

In addition to the above elements, vanilla also encloses 25 per cent of different sugars, 15 per cent to 30 per cent of cellulose, 15 per cent fat and six per cent minerals. The water content in vanilla is around 35 per cent, which is considered to be exceptionally high.

Usual dosage

The normal dosage of vanilla to treat different conditions differs in its powder and infusion forms. While eight to ten grains of powdered vanilla is recommended to treat different conditions, the infusion prepared with vanilla is prepared in the ratio of half ounce to one pint of boiling water.

Half ounce of this fluid is taken three to four times daily. In order to grind the vanilla pods, they need to be sliced into small parts and blended with four parts of sugar and pulverized in an iron mortar. This pounded blend is later shifted and the remains are powdered after adding more sugar. This process continues till the entire pods are powdered.

Stages of Production


Although the beans of vanilla grow rapidly on the vines, they are not ready for harvesting till they mature some nine months from the time of their appearance. Pollinating the vanilla flowers as well as harvesting the beans is both labor intensive jobs.

The unripe deep green vanilla pods are never harvested as they do not yield the desired results. When the terminal end of these pods begins to discolor and turn pale yellowish, it is an indication that they are beginning to mature.

All the beans of the same vine do not mature at the same time, but each according to its own time. As a result, there is a need for daily harvesting of the pods. In order to ensure the best essence from every bean on the vine, they need to be plucked individually by hand when their ends show signs of splitting. When the beans are over mature, they split on their own and this decreases their price on the market.

In fact, the commercial price of the vanilla beans is fixed according to their length. Vanilla beans measuring over 15 cm in length it is considered to be of the best quality product, while beans that measure between 10 cm and 15 cm in length are placed in the second quality.

The third quality vanilla beans are those that measure less than 10 cm in length. Each vanilla bean contains a substantial number of seeds in the pods that have a deep red liquid coating. The essence of vanillin is extracted from these pods enclosing the seeds of this exotic orchid.

The yield of vanilla beans largely depend on the amount of care and management put into the hanging and fruit-bearing vines. Any move that is aimed at encouraging aerial root growth has an express impact on the productivity of the vanilla vines.

Normally, a five-year old vanilla vine has the aptitude to produce around 1.5 kg to 3.0 kg pods and the amount of production may go up to even 6.0 kg pods after a small number of years.

The immature green beans that are sometimes harvested along with the mature vanilla beans may be sold directly on the market at a low price, or the planters may choose to cure them to obtain a better market price later.


There are various techniques available on the market to cure the vanilla beans. Although these methods are different in approach, they all comprise four fundamental phases - killing, sweating, slow-drying and conditioning of the beans. As discussed earlier, cured immature green vanilla beans fetch a better price than the unripe beans sold directly on the market.


The first step of the curing process of green vanilla beans comprise 'killing' whereby the vegetative tissue of the vanilla pod is destroyed to avoid further growth.

There are various techniques of 'killing' and the vegetative tissue of the vanilla pods may be destroyed by oven killing (roasting on an oven), sun killing (drying in the sunlight), hot water killing (soaking in hot water), killing by scratching (scraping) or killing by freezing.

The hot water killing process involves dipping the vanilla beans in hot water around 63°C and 65°C for approximately three minutes to thwart the vegetative growth of the pods. This method also includes beginning enzymatic reactions that are responsible for the fragrance of this vanilla extracted from such beans.


This procedure involves covering the vanilla beans with woolen cloth to increase the temperature of the beans to around 45°C and 65°C along with extreme humidity and in sunlight for around one hour every day for at least 10 successive days.

When the vanilla pods are removed from under sunlight conditions after one hour, they are stored in wooden boxes in air-tight conditions for the remaining period. Such situations enable the enzymes to accelerate the reactions concerned in producing the distinct vanilla color, essence and scent.


The drying process is important for it helps in avoiding decay and secure the aroma in the vanilla pods when they are dry. According to this process, the pods are usually put out under the sunlight in the mornings and stored back in their boxes in the afternoons.

At the beginning of the drying process, the moisture content of the vanilla pods is between 60 per cent and 70 per cent, but when the moisture content of the pods drop down to 25 per cent to 30 per cent, the curing process is considered to have been completed.

At the end of the drying process, these vanilla beans that were harvested green start revealing their complete aromatic qualities. The decrease in the moisture content of the vanilla beans is accomplished by spreading the beans on a wooden shelf in a room for around three to four weeks.

Conditioning of the bean

The vanilla beans are conditioned by storing the pods for a few months in closed boxes to enable the pods to develop the characteristic vanilla aroma. Later, the processed beans are classified, graded, grouped and covered in paraffin paper and preserved for the maturity of desired bean excellence, particularly the essence and perfume. On an average, the cured vanilla beans enclose around 2.5 per cent of vanillin.


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