Vanilla, a genus of climbing orchids grown for commercial use in tropical areas in many parts of the world. The fruit pods of the vanilla plant are processed to obtain vanilla extract. The extract is used to flavor chocolates, pastries, ice cream, and other foods, and in making perfumes and liquors. Vanillin is the substance that gives the extract its flavor and odor. Madagascar produces 60 to 80 percent of the world's vanilla extract.
Vanilla plants are grown from cuttings planted at the bases of trees or poles. When 15 to 20 feet (4.5 to 6 m) tall, the plants are bent over to droop, because only a drooping part will produce flowers. Vanilla plants bear fruit twice a year and produce profitably for 15 to 20 years. The flowers are greenish-yellow and the leaves are fleshy and heart-shaped. The fruits consist of pods 6 to 10 inches (15 to 25 cm) long and up to half an inch (12 mm) wide. They contain a brown pulp in which many tiny black seeds are embedded. In tropical America, their native habitat, vanilla plants are pollinated by native bees and hummingbirds. Elsewhere, vanilla plants must be pollinated by hand, which greatly adds to the cost of production.
The pods are picked before they are ripe and are put through a curing process that brings out the vanilla odor. For two weeks they are sweated—dried in the sun in the morning, covered with blankets in the afternoon, and kept in blanket-lined airtight containers at night. They are next dried in the sun for two months, then dried in the shade for three months.
Vanilla extract is made by steeping thinly sliced vanilla pods in a mixture of hot water and alcohol. The liquor is filtered, aged in glass containers, and bottled for sale.
Artificial vanilla extract, also called vanillin, is made from cloves, ethyl acetate, or lignin, a by-product of the sulfite process of making wood pulp. About 10 times as much vanillin is sold as natural vanilla extract, which is far more expensive.
The main source of vanilla extract is Vanilla planifolia; West Indian vanilla, V. pompona, is also used. Both species belong to the orchid family, Orchidaceae.