By Amanda Jones

Vanilla is a tropical climbing orchid, with a long green fleshy stem that sprouts roots that cling to trees parasitically. Its yellow or orange orchidaceous flowers grow in bunches, which bloom one flower each day, opening one by one during the two month season. Vanilla cannot grow naturally in temperate climates. In nature they are only pollinated by Mexican bees and hummingbirds that are capable of penetrating a tough membrane that separates the plant’s pistol and stamen.

European entrepreneurs had transplanted vanilla to grow in other tropical locations but could not get them to produce the pods. In 1841, Edmond Albius (above left), a former slave on the French Island of Réunion, perfected a method to artificially fertilize the short-lived vanilla flower using a thin bamboo skewer to lift the membrane and use his thumb to smear the pollen. This gave great impetus to vanilla bean husbandry, and the method is still used today.

Albius’s manual pollination method is still used today, as nearly all vanilla is pollinated by hand. After Albius’s discovery, Réunion became for a time the world's largest supplier of vanilla. French colonists used Albius's technique in the East African nation of Madagascar to cultivate vanilla, and today Madagascar (mostly the fertile region of Sava) accounts for half of the global production of vanilla.

Unfortunately, Albius did not draw any benefit from an invention which made the fortune of the growers, and he died in poverty in 1880.

Next to saffron and cardamom, vanilla is the world’s most expensive spice.

Originally appeared in Bajan Scent.