The vanilla orchid is native to Mexico but it is only a minor producer, having been overtaken by Madagascar in the 1960s. Indonesia is the other big producer.
French colonists first brought vanilla to Madagascar’s neighbouring island of Réunion in the early 19th century. It grows as a clinging vine, reaching lengths of up to 300ft (90m).
The vines grow well outside Mexico — but no fruit, in the form of vanilla beans, was produced. Horticulturists eventually discovered what was missing.
The pollen on a vanilla orchid flower is inaccessible to most insects, including typical honey bees. The small Melipona bee, which lives in only Mexico, was the only one able to reach the vanilla pollen and fertilise the flowers. Still, relying on the bees for pollination is a hit-and-miss affair as the pale white orchids bloom for just one day each year and the flower is fertile for only eight to 12 hours after it blooms.
Now you know why the stuff got up to $250 a pound last year. This isn’t saffron territory, but it’s close. Were it not for the invention of an artificial vanilla, most of us might never have tasted it at all.