Vanilla planifolia is a climbing vine with a winding stem and rubbery leaves that produces a beautiful yellow and white orchid. The orchid lasts for only one day and must be pollinated to produce the seed pods that are the vanilla bean we know and love. A tended plant starts to produce pods after about 3 years and lives to be about 10 years old on average.
It grows in very select discrete environments. It is known to be even more complex than wine in many ways as it is in limited supply, often requires hand pollination on a single day while the blossom is in bloom, and has a vast array of incredible taste attributes.
Similar to fine wine, the unique flavors and aromas are a reflection of its terroir: namely it’s varietal, harvest time, aging process and production methods. Revealing the distinct and subtle attributes is a labor of love for many as it is a complex and lengthy process to coax out these unique and desirable expressions. The seed pods look like green beans when they’re ripe and after picking are dried and fermented through a variety of processes to allow for their rich flavour to fully develop.
After saffron, vanilla is the most expensive spice due to the labor-intensive process with which it is cultivated and processed. Despite its high price, it is widely used in both commercial and domestic baking, perfume manufacture, and aromatherapy.
Vanilla has been used as a spice in foods and beverages, as an aromatic and as a medicine throughout history. It was called tlīlxochitl by the Aztecs and they drank its extract combined with cacao.
The Spanish conquistadors who came in contact with it through the Aztecs appreciated its aroma and flavor and brought it back to Europe where its uses ranged from a flavor enhancer in beverages to a coveted additive in perfumes.
Until 2016, when vanilla was found in a bronze age tomb by an Israeli researcher, it had been commonly accepted that vanilla was domesticated in the New World and subsequently spread to other parts of the globe. With this new discovery, which leans to trade routes as it’s source, the origins of the plant are now in question.
In the New World, vanilla beans grow in tropical environments and are said to have originated from Mexico with their cultivation dating back to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.
The plant prefers things hot and humid, so it’s cultivation spread to other areas with suitable climate conditions and it was the discovery of a hand-pollination method that allowed global cultivation of the plant and it’s export as a commercial crop.
Four main growing areas now account for most of the world’s vanilla production, each with its distinctive characteristics.
The highest quality vanilla on the market is produced in Madagascar. It is known for being sweet, smooth, creamy and mellow in flavour. Second to this is Indonesia, which grows vanilla pods that have increasingly become more sweet and creamy similar to Madagascar beans, with a more complex slightly fruity flavor profile that finishes with unique earthy/woody undertones. These two regions comprise about 90% of the vanilla production across the globe.
A small percentage of the world production remains in Mexico. Mexican vanilla is creamy, sweet, smooth and spicy followed by Tahiti, the smallest producer of the four major regions. Vanilla from Tahiti is flowery, fruity and smooth.
Hawaii is not part of the four major vanilla producing regions, but it has a handful of craft growers who are dedicated to this special plant and the beans it produces. Farmers with a deep love of the bean have found fertile ground in Hawaii’s tropical climate and its global clientele of tourists.
Vanilla has been used to soothe inflammation for centuries. It has been shown to be effective at reducing inflammation of the liver and for soothing and easing inflammation of the gut. It is known to help ease arthritis, gout, and other inflammatory conditions.
Its anti-inflammatory properties are also helpful when fighting a respiratory infection. Vanilla extract taken orally in a warm beverage can help soothe the throat and provide an anesthetic effect.
Vanilla’s antibacterial property can help eliminate the underlying infection of respiratory illness while easing its symptoms. Furthermore, the antibacterial nature of this remedy means that it can help protect your immune system and lower stress on the body, making it much easier to recover from injury or illness.
Aromatherapy and the therapeutic use of essential oils have increasingly gained in popularity and scientific backing over the last decade. It has been found that our olfactory sense and simply inhaling certain smells allows certain chemicals to pass the blood brain barrier and provide effects. The aroma of pure vanilla is known to directly impact the brain and induce calmness. In times of chronic stress and anxiety, vanilla and the chemicals that create its aroma can be a simple, accessible, and enjoyable remedy.
Vanilla can be a delicious flavor addition to many beverages and foods we already enjoy. Adding a few drops of extract into tea or coffee adds a delightful rich flavor with the added benefits mentioned above. Ice cream is most notably associated with vanilla, but it is added to cookies and cakes often as well. The extract is versatile and can be added into smoothies and can be taken in honey or hot water when dealing with a cold or flu.
Less common but very desirable, vanilla bean paste gives a bit richer, fuller flavor without the added alcohol of an extract. It can be used in much the same way as extract just with more care to mix and blend it completely into the desired medium.
Again, less common, but a favorite among chef’s, vanilla bean powder is very easy to work with, has an undiluted flavor and aroma and is easy to mix into most any recipe calling for vanilla extract. The most notable difference is the little black flecks that will show up in your drink or dish that an extract will not impart.
Vanilla is excellent in combination with CBD to help reduce stress and support a healthy inflammation response. Plant extracts are often paired together to enhance benefits and in the case of this duo, it is a great match. Vanilla adds an olfactory element that brings a pleasant feeling and sense of calm. It brings a smooth richness to the flavor and assists in delivering the key wellness benefits discussed above. CBD has a good ally in Vanilla and products like Mana’s Hemp Oil were designed to deliver the synergistic benefits of this combination.