5 Facts that Prove Vanilla is Anything But Plain
Vanilla rose to prominence during the days of the ancient Aztecs, making its debut in a 15th-century recipe for hot chocolate. Now a five-star flavor deployed in everything from desserts to cocktails to cosmetics—it has become synonymous with “plain,” and, truth be told, that's pretty much the height of irony. Vanilla’s origin story is genuinely extraordinary, laced with drama, adventure, and obstacles like piracy and merciless conquests. If that doesn’t sound intriguing enough, there’s also this: a 12-year-old slave (named Edmond Albius) invented a method for hand-pollinating vanilla pods in the 1700s, revolutionizing the industry. Yeah, vanilla is exciting, exotic, and delicious—to call it plain is just, well, plain wrong. And here are five more facts to back that up.
Thomas Jefferson popularized it in the US
Vanilla has long been revered as a respected and sacred plant. Cultivated since the early 1500’s, it was originally discovered in Mexico by an Indian tribe known as the Totonacs, until the Aztecs came to conquer them. From the Aztecs and their ceremonial drink called cacao, the Spaniards discovered vanilla and eventually took the fragrant treasure with them to Europe. It reached the US in the 18th century, and is said to have been popularized by Thomas Jefferson, who documented the first recipe for vanilla ice cream while he lived in Paris as the American Minister of France, catapulting the flavor to US fame.
It can only be pollinated by hummingbirds—and one species of bee
Vanilla is the only variety of orchid (out of roughly 25,000) that produces an agricultural product, and if that weren’t enough to establish its cred as a singular product, consider this: the Vanilla orchid can only be pollinated by hummingbirds and the Melipona bee from Mexico. That fact was discovered the hard way—after the plants were removed from Mexico (by smugglers, no less) they failed to thrive, because the required bees were nowhere in sight. Vanilla is now pollinated exclusively by hand, but hummingbirds can also do the trick—a fact that just adds another layer of magic to vanilla’s legend.
It’s often protected by armed guards
As the second-most expensive spice in the world (after saffron) vanilla is serious business. It’s in everything from colas to candies to perfumes and more than 50% of the desserts on the planet, so when its price fluctuates, things can get… volatile. It’s not uncommon for merchants to hire armed guards to protect to their beautiful, precious vanilla orchid plants.
It will keep spiders out of your house
While the scent of vanilla is pleasing to most (all?) human beings, it is almost lethal for spiders. The eight-legged creatures hate the scent of essential oils, citrus, and vanilla, so pest control experts suggest adding vanilla extract to a solution of dish soap, alcohol, vinegar, and oils to thwart these unwanted creatures from lingering in your home. Vanilla can also be used to mask many strong industrial odors, including heavy ones like rubber tires, paint, and cleaning products. And if your house or apartment has an unfortunate stank of any kind, add a couple capfuls of vanilla extract to a mug, stick it in the oven at 300 degrees for an hour and the offending odor will vanish, replaced by the heavenly smell of warm vanilla.
There are roughly 20,000 species of bees on the planet, but only one of them, the Melipona, is capable of pollinating the orchid that produces vanilla. Now that is exotic—pretty much the opposite of plain. Much like Crown Royal Vanilla and its blend of carefully chosen Crown Royal whiskies infused with Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla; it’s a sippable, mixable, and deliciously smooth spirit.
Its flower only blooms one morning a year
Today’s abundance of vanilla is a bit of a miracle, a million-to-one shot in nature. The plant—actually a vine that climbs trees—has thrived through very small windows of opportunity. For starters, it only blooms once a year, and if it isn’t pollinated within 24 hours, the whole plant dies. Second, as mentioned, it can only be pollinated by one type of bee (the tiny Melipona) or hummingbirds; and third, cultivating the vanilla pods is an extremely painstaking process that can last as long as nine months. Talk about against all odds! It’s a testament to the deliciousness of vanilla that it not only exists but booms in the face of all these obstacles.