Ice cream, cake, frosting, candy, pudding, the list goes on! Vanilla is one of the quintessential flavors for desserts, and a scent that you can find perfuming homes around the world. It’s a classic flavor you can find everywhere, but did you know that it was once coveted for its rarity and supposed medicinal properties? The vanilla orchid has only one known pollinator, the Melipona bee. Both are native to Mexico, so when the vanilla orchid was first exported in the late 1700’s around the world, none of the plants produced vanilla pods.
This is where Edmond Albius comes into the story of vanilla. It all started when the plantation owner, Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont, showed his slave, Edmund, how to hand pollinate a watermelon plant. Edmond took the principles he learned from this lesson and applied them to the orchid. He discovered the rostellum, the lid that prevents self fertilization in many orchid plants, and how to gently manipulate it to allow for fertilization. He taught his technique to slaves at other plantations which helped to develop the island of Réunion as one of the top vanilla producers in the world, within 50 years of his discovery.
As a reward for his contributions, Bellier-Beaumont granted Edmond his freedom and last name, Albius. He also wrote to the governor, saying Edmond deserved a cash stipend “for his role in making the vanilla industry.” Unfortunately, an answer was never given and Edmond didn’t receive a dime. After moving into town, Edmond fell in with the wrong crowd and ended up in jail. When his former owner wrote to the governor asking for clemency in recognition for his contributions to the island, the governor obliged. It is striking that in his letter Bellier-Beaumont gave Edmond full credit for his discovery. Bellier-Beaumont wrote, “It is entirely due to him that this country owes a new branch of industry – for it is he who first discovered how to manually fertilize the vanilla plant.” Giving full credit to his former slave and retaining none for himself was unexpected. Even when a famous botanist from Paris tried to discredit Edmond, and claim the achievement for himself, Bellier-Beaumont refuted, writing directly to the historian of Réunion to declare Edmond as the true inventor. Through the preservation of these writings Edmond Albius hasn’t been lost to history and has been given the credit he deserves. To this day his technique is still used in the vanilla industry.
You can find a vanilla orchid in the Tropical Conservatory at Sherman Gardens – but you might not even recognise Vanilla planifolia as an orchid. It is an epiphytic vine orchid and can be seen wrapped around other plants. Its leaves look much like that of other orchids, but it has a thicker stem and the flower is a light green to yellow color with thin long petals. The production of vanilla pods is a challenge. The flowers only bloom for one day, during which time the plant must be pollinated by hand by our Orchid Curator, Joel Friesen.