The Tale of the Ice Cream Orchid

There is no substitute for natural vanilla, the world’s most exotic and sensual plant.

| April/May 2005

  • Illustration by Marjorie Leggitt
  • More than half of all the world’s vanilla beans end up in the United States. Half of those are used in the dairy industry, mainly in the form of vanilla extract, or essence.
    Photo courtesy of Nielsen-Massey Vanilla
  • Under the right conditions, an established vanilla vine is capable of long life in the wild, perhaps a thousand years.
    Photo courtesy of Nielsen-Massey Vanilla
  • Of all the orchids, the vanilla family is the only one that produces an agriculturally valuable crop.
    Nielsen-Massey Vanilla

Editor’s Note: The following text has been excerpted from VANILLA © 2004 by Tim Ecott and is reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

The vanilla plant is a tropical vine, which can reach a length of over 100 feet. It belongs to one of the oldest and largest groups of flowering plants — the orchids — currently known to contain more than 25,000 species, and counting. Of all the orchids, the vanilla family is the only one that produces an agriculturally valuable crop, as distinct from orchids cultivated and traded simply for their decorative value. These are not rare, bizarrely shaped hothouse exotics to inspire orchid collectors with their well-documented fanatical relish. The vanilla orchid has its own appeal, a fruit with a scent so unique, so distinctive to the human palate that it was once worth its weight in silver.

The vanilla orchid is not a showy flower; it has only a slight scent, with no element of vanilla flavor or aroma. When its pale yellow flowers are pollinated, the ovaries swell and develop into the fruits, just like extra-long green beans, we call ‘pods’ or ‘beans.’ They contain thousands of tiny black seeds. The growing process lasts up to nine months, but only when the pods turn brown after being dried and cured do they develop the distinctive aroma we call vanilla. Drying, curing and conditioning the pods is an art, which, if done properly, takes another nine months. Vanilla is the most labor-intensive agricultural product in the world.

Like all agricultural commodities, vanilla goes through periodic cycles of boom and bust prices. Even at its lowest level, there will always be farmers in Madagascar, Mexico or Indonesia who are so poor that they will cultivate vanilla vines. As I write, the price for gourmet quality vanilla beans is at an all-time high — more than $500 a kilogram — inspiring growers to stand guard over their plants in the tropical jungle.

There are more than a hundred different species of vanilla orchid, and they grow all over the tropics with the exception of Australia. All of the vanilla orchids produce fruits containing seeds, but only a few species bear the large, aromatic pods, which can be used commercially. Virtually all of the cultivated vanilla in the world today comes from just one species, Vanilla planifolia (sometimes called Vanilla fragrans), a plant indigenous to Central America, and particularly the southeastern part of Mexico. At least two other varieties, Vanilla pompona and Vanilla tahitensis also provide a serviceable culinary pod, although they are not as readily obtainable and they produce a different flavor and aroma to the planifolia.


Vanilla is one of the most widely used flavoring substances in the world and Americans consume more vanilla than anyone else on earth.

4/30/2014 12:30:42 AM

Really! I can't believe this. It is a great news. Our farming sector now try to fulfill all demand of food or products extract by orchid flower demand by people. Orchid flowers are very beautiful and like by all. Orchid flower use to make several products. We can found a large number of orchid products available in market. I like vanilla ice cream. It feel nice to know its relation with orchid flower.

Subscribe today and save 58%

Subscribe to Mother Earth Living !

Mother Earth LivingWelcome to Mother Earth Living, the authority on green lifestyle and design. Each issue of Mother Earth Living features advice to create naturally healthy and nontoxic homes for yourself and your loved ones. With Mother Earth Living by your side, you’ll discover all the best and latest information you want on choosing natural remedies and practicing preventive medicine; cooking with a nutritious and whole-food focus; creating a nontoxic home; and gardening for food, wellness and enjoyment. Subscribe to Mother Earth Living today to get inspired on the art of living wisely and living well.

Save Money & a Few Trees!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You’ll save an additional $5 and get six issues of Mother Earth Living for just $19.95! (Offer valid only in the U.S.)

Or, choose Bill Me and pay just $24.95.

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter

Free Product Information Classifieds