Plant Portrait: Vanilla

I still remember the first time I was shown a real vanilla bean, my friend cut the thin black pod into two with a sharp knife.

Then the tiny black dots, hiding inside and
known as vanilla caviar, appeared. We added them to the cream for an apple-pie, while the air around us filled up with a sweet soft and seducing perfume.

I was simply mesmerised and blown away by the fine and delectable aroma of the vanilla bean!


Vanilla Beans - Jana Teneva

Green vanilla beans growing in Jardin d´Èpices
in Reunion island, France.

Vanilla is the only edible member of the Orchid family and it grows on lianas in the shadows of tropical forests. Only in its place of origin, Mexico,  the flower is naturally pollinated by a local species of bee or by the hummingbird. 

The honour of introducing both vanilla and chocolate to Europe in 1520s goes to the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés.

Did you know?

Did you know, that nowadays vanilla is the second most-expensive spice after saffron?
This is because its global cultivation is labour-intensive: the pollination of the vanilla flowers is done by hand.

The time window for each flower is 12hours, before it falls off.
After the fruit starts to grow it takes up to eight-nine months for a bean to form!

The magic ingredient

The magic ingredient in it, the hero amongst over 200 phytonutrients inside, is called “vanillin”.
This compound is said to be a “medicinal charm”, famous for different conditions through the centuries and continents: from healing depression and coughing till being used for brain-exhilaration and as an aphrodisiac.

Health benefits

Vanilla beans have antioxidants that help prevent cell and tissue breakdown, stimulate the body’s natural regrowth and eliminate free radicals”.
∼ Dr. Mercola

Which translate into the following health benefits of the vanilla bean:

  • lowers cholesterol;
  • helps alleviate arthritis, gout and other inflammation;
  • assists in relieving coughs, colds and respiratory infections;
  • inhibit cramps and upset stomach (when taken as a tea);
  • strengthen hair and blood flow in the scalp (when vanilla oil with carrier oil is used for massaging in the hair);
  • speeds up skin healing process and decreases scar appearance (when used topically in combination with a carrier oil).

Based on all these powerful properties, vanilla is nowadays widely used not only in commercial and domestic baking, but also in perfume and cosmetics, as well as in aromatherapy.

Vanilla Beans Market on Guadeloupe WestIndies - Jana Teneva

Ready to use vanilla beans on the market of Sainte-Anne, Guadeloupe in the French

Vanilla planifolia - Living Libations

Vanilla planifolia

Vanilla planifolia

Vanilla Tahitian - Living Libations

Vanilla Tahitenis

Three major species of vanilla

Currently three major species of vanilla are grown globally:

  • Vanilla planifolia (known as ”bourbon vanilla” or often just referred as French vanilla): grown on Madagascar, Réunion island and other tropical areas along the Indian ocean. Bourbon Vanilla is arguably the best bean, because of the strongest aroma and the most vanillin; 
  • Vanilla tahitensis: grown in the South Pacific, not only in Tahiti but also in Hawaii and other Pacific islands. It has less vanillin, but it has gained appreciation among chefs due to its unique flavour.
  • Vanilla pompona: found in the West Indies, Central America and South America.
    This vanilla has low vanillin content and it is mainly sold for cosmetics.

Interesting to know is that the majority of the world’s vanilla is Vanilla planifolia, “bourbon vanilla”. Combined Madagascar and Indonesia produce 2/3 of the world supply of vanilla, in 2016 the total world production was as high as 7940 tonnes!

The Dutch Health store offers several products with vanilla

Jana Teneva

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1. “Healing spices: how to use 50 every day and exotic spices to boost health and beat
– by Bharat Aggarwal, PhD;

2. “Why vanilla is absolutely worth it”
– by Dr. Mercola on

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