The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Vanilla

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VANILLA, a genus of orchids, of great economic value, on account of their fruits, which furnish the commercial flavoring-extract known by the same name. Several species furnish vanilla, the most important being V. planifolia, indigenous to Mexico and adjacent territories. It is a robust high-climbing plant, attaching itself to trees by adventitious roots. It hears bright-green, oval, flat leaves, which are fleshy or coriaceous. The flowers are fragrant and greenish-white, with a trumpet-shaped lip, crinkled about the edges. When cultivated, as it is very largely, in tropical countries, especially in Mexico and Java, the flowers must be fertilized artificially, the finest being chosen, a process carried out by insects in its wild habitat. They then set fleshy fruit, which is carefully picked just before each is ripe. These pods are from six to nine inches long and are filled with an oily pulp containing the minute seeds. They are called vanilla beans from their long, slender legume-like appearance, but are not fragrant. The characteristic aroma is due to the presence of a volatile oil (vanillin) which is developed by slow curing and fermentation. The pod, as it appears in the markets, is chocolate-colored, wrinkled, slender and pliable. In the best qualities, or “frosted vanilla,” the vanillin extrudes its needle-like crystals, forming a delicate efflorescence on the outside of the beans. Although vanilla is a carminative and stimulative drug, it is chiefly used as a flavoring substance, particularly for chocolate and confectionery. The Spaniards found vanilla in use among the Mexican Indians, in conjunction with cocoa, and it is said that it was first imported into England about 1510, when other Mexican products found their way over seas.

There are several inferior qualities of vanilla, Each as the Venezuelan and Brazilian varieties, brought from those countries, the latter being distinguished as vanillon, and supposed to be the product of Vanilla pompona. The pods are longer and thicker than those of V. planifolia. Guiana vanilla pods (V. guianensis) are coarse and frequently split open.