Vanilla (Vanilla tahitensis and V. planifolia), that wonderfully spicy and sweet flavoring, is created from the vanilla orchid, one of only a few edible orchids. Most commercial vanilla comes from V. planifolia, a plant still found in Mesoamerica today. V. tahitensis, however, is a highly prized form of the plant only found in cultivated gardens and growing wild in French Polynesia.
It has long been recognized that vanilla is a New World plant, and that it was likely first cultivated by the Maya beginning at least in the 14th century AD. How did it come to be that V. tahitensis is located so far away from its original source? Recent genetic studies has identified V. tahitensis as a hybrid of Vanilla planifolia and V. odorata, both plants tended by the Maya.
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice available today (right after saffron), because the curing process takes between 6-9 months, and involves several labor-intensive heating and drying episodes. The Maya word for vanilla is zizbic, and it was used with copal resin as incense, and to treat insect bites and heal wounds. The Aztecs are thought to be the first to use vanilla in conjunction with the cacao bean to make the chocolate drink.
It was the Spanish who took vanilla to the rest of the world, most likely part of the Pacific Ocean Manila Galleon trade (AD 1565-1815) through the Philippine Islands. In Mesoamerica, shipments of vanilla could have come from southern Chiapas, Guatemala, and El Salvador. There is no explicit mention of vanilla trade in the records of the Manila Galleon, but there is a listed 'vanilla of Guatemala' in an 1837 botanical treatise of the Philippines.
The recent study by Lubinsky at al. concluded that, since the V. tahitensis hybrid is not found in Mesoamerica today, and its genetic nature clearly indicates a recent hybridization, its domestication may date to the Late Postclassic period (ca 1350-1500), when Maya silviculturists harvested both forms of vanilla and chocolate (Theobroma cacao). If it was hybridized in Mesoamerica, it is no longer found there; that may be an accident of nature. Alternatively, it is possible that V. tahitensis was hybridized in Polynesia when both forms of the plant were cultivated together. Both scenarios suggest a late domestication.
This entry is part of the About.com Guide to the Domestication of Plants
Eureka Alert. 2008. Tahitian vanilla originated in Maya forests, says UC Riverside botanist
Bythrow, Jenna D. 2005 Vanilla as a Medicinal Plant. Seminars in Integrative Medicine 3(4):129-131. Free Abstract
Lubinsky, Pesach, et al. 2008 Neotropical roots of a Polynesian spice: the hybrid origin of Tahitian vanilla, Vanilla tahitensis (Orchidaceae). American Journal of Botany 95:1040-1047. Free abstract
This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.