Pure Vanilla is Made from an Orchid Plant

by AngelaJohnson

After saffron, vanilla is the next most expensive spice. Since pure vanilla is so expensive, most vanilla flavorings and scents are made with imitation vanilla.

Pure vanilla is made from the cured bean pod of the Vanilla Planifolia orchid. This is the only orchid in the world that vines and the only one that produces edible fruit.

Vanilla Orchids are grown in tropical climates like Mexico, Florida, Tahiti, the Bahamas, Madagascar, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Most of the world's vanilla is grown in Madagascar.

Vanilla is used in many food and drink recipes, and especially in the dairy industry for ice creams and other dairy products. There are many different flavors of ice cream, but vanilla is still the best selling.

Vanilla is also used in perfumes, room fresheners and candles, and to cover up strong industrial smells like paint and cleaning products.

Photo of Flat-leaved Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) from Wikipedia

Flat-leaved Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia)

Flat-leaved Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia)
Flat-leaved Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia)

The Melipona Bee is the Only Insect That Pollinates the Vanilla Orchid

Vanilla Orchid Flowers are Usually Pollinated by Hand

pollinating the vanilla orchid flower

The vanilla orchid flower is a pale-yellow color with some light green and is about 2 inches in diameter. The flowers must be pollinated to produce bean pods (the fruit) and each flower creates one pod.

If you watched the video above, you saw that the Melipona Bee in Mexico is the only insect that
pollinates the vanilla orchid flower. So the only truly reliable method to pollinate the flowers is by hand.

The vanilla flower only stays open one day. Plantation workers have to inspect the plants every day to find open flowers to pollinate. Since this is so labor-intensive, it’s one of the reasons pure vanilla is so expensive.

Photo by brocktopia on Flickr.

About Pure Vanilla Extract

dried vanilla beansVanilla extract is made by using alcohol to transfer the flavor of vanilla beans. Vodka is usually used since it has a neutral flavor.

The quality of the vanilla beans determines the cost of pure vanilla extract. To meet FDA (Federal Drug Administration in the U.S.) standards, pure vanilla extract must contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon during extraction and 35 percent alcohol.

Pure vanilla extract contains only vanilla, alcohol and water. It takes two years for vanilla extract to completely age. The flavor won’t improve any more after two years, but pure vanilla will never deteriorate.

Companies that do not age their extract for the full two years will add syrup or sugar to mellow out the alcohol. These sweeteners are the only other ingredient that the FDA allows to be added to extract and still be labeled Pure Vanilla Extract.

If you don’t want alcohol in your vanilla extract, buy “natural vanilla” where instead of alcohol, the beans have been soaked in glycerin or propylene glycol.

There is no need to use expensive pure vanilla in baked goods because heat affects the taste.  Save pure vanilla for ice creams and other fresh desserts.


Photo of bundles of dried vanilla beans by acfou on Flickr .

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To ward off gnats and mosquitoes, mix a tablespoon of pure vanilla extract into a cup of water. Rub it on your face, arms and legs.  

  Also use this solution on your horse's ears and eyes; it works!



About the Vanilla Orchid Fruit (Bean)

vanilla fruit (bean)The vanilla orchid fruit is not really a bean.  It's called a vanilla "bean” because of its shape and color.

After the vines are planted, it can take as long as three years before the blooms appear. The vanilla bean pod grows up to 10 inches long, and takes around 9 months to ripen, which is when it turns black. Vanilla flavoring is made from the pod and the seeds, which first must be cured and dried.

Vanilla is the most labor-intensive agricultural crop in the world. Because of its value, vanilla rustling (stealing) has become a problem. 

Growers usually brand (tattoo) each individual bean while it is still green and the brand remains and can be seen even after the bean is dried. If a grower suspects his beans were stolen, he can report the theft and provide his brand to the authorities.

To prevent theft, some growers pick their beans before they are completely ripe. Vanilla beans are best if they ripen on the vine, but picking them early will keep them from being stolen.

Photo by toryporter on Flickr

A Close Up View of Inside a Dried Vanilla Bean

Notice all the tiny black seeds
dried vanilla beans
dried vanilla beans

You Can Make Your Own Vanilla Extract

homemade vanilla extractIngredients:

2 cups vodka (or brandy)
6 vanilla beans


Using a sharp knife, cut the vanilla beans lengthwise, leaving about a half inch uncut so the beans stay intact.  

Pour the vodka into the container you will be making your extract in. Clear glass is good because you can see how the extract develops.

Put the cut beans in the vodka and push them down until they are completely covered. 

Cover the container and let it sit in a cupboard out of the light. After about 8 weeks, the vanilla extract will have a nice amber color.  Keep the vanilla beans in the extract and it will keep adding flavor.


NOTE: It takes about two years to completely bring out the flavor of the beans, but the extract can be used earlier. Vanilla never spoils or goes out of date.  It's best to store vanilla extract in a dark colored bottle out of the light.


If you give some vanilla extract as a gift, put a vanilla bean in each bottle and tell them they can add a little more vodka when the vanilla is about half used up. The vanilla extract will be diluted for a short time, but it will regain strength quickly. 

Photo by Ruthieki on Flickr.

How to Prepare Vanilla Beans

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Vanilla Orchid Vine Growing up a Tall Tree

Vanilla Orchid Vine Growing up a Tall Tree
Vanilla Orchid Vine Growing up a Tall Tree

How to Grow Vanilla

Would You Like to Learn to Grow Orchids?

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Be Patient: These Plants are Small and Won't Bear Flowers Right Away
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Updated: 12/17/2015, AngelaJohnson
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AngelaJohnson on 10/07/2016

I'm not a botanist, but I believe pollen stays within a flower as long as it's in bloom. A vanilla orchid bloom opens in the morning and closes up the same day. So vanilla plantation workers must go out every day to find newly opened blooms so they can self pollinate them before they close.

blackspanielgallery on 10/01/2016

Does the pollen last, or must new pollen be obtained daily for hand pollination?

blackspanielgallery on 06/28/2015

So, that is where vanilla comes from. I never gave it a thought before now.

CruiseReady on 06/24/2015

This is a really interesting article - especially the part about having to manually pollinate the flowers. I appreciated the tip about how to refresh a partially used bottle of vanilla extract, too. Very handy!

AngelaJohnson on 01/17/2015

sandyspider - it would be fun to try, but unfortunately vanilla takes several years to produce beans. You can buy vanilla beans online or in larger or specialty grocery stores and make your own extract (see module "You Can Make Your Own Vanilla Extract").

sandyspider on 01/15/2015

I wonder how well it would grow where I live. The extract is expensive in the stores.

ologsinquito on 01/13/2015

Vanilla is so delicious. I like the idea of being able to make your own extract.

Telesto on 11/26/2014

I'm a big fan of vanilla and found that really interesting, thank you.

AngelaJohnson on 11/25/2014

CorreenK - thanks for the review of the Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Paste; I have't tried the paste yet.

Mira on 11/25/2014

This was so interesting, it made my day. You write amazing articles! Thank you so much for sharing all this info with us. I watched the videos as well. Thank you!

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