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Abundant Future: Cultivating Diversity in Garden, Farm, and Field



Vanilla planifolia

The process vanilla has gone through to arrive in our kitchen cabinets is fascinating. It comes to us from Mexico, where it was first cultivated by the Totonacs, then Aztecs. After colonization by Sprin, Hernán Cortés is credited with introducing vanilla to Europe alongside chocolate. For quite some time vanilla was considered only a companion to chocolate, and not a flavor on its own.

Mexico remained the main vanilla producer through the mid-19th century. Although it had been transplanted throughout the world in tropical regions, vanilla rarely produced fruits, and in 1836 a Belgian botanist, Charles Morren, discovered that the plant was not self-pollinating. Once outside its native Mexico, where it was pollinated by a tiny bee, it only occasionally succeeded in producing vanilla pods. It was a 12-year-old enslaved child named Edmond Albius on the island of Réunion who figured out how to efficiently hand-pollinate the flowers. Once his method was adopted, successful plantations sprang up, and with wider cultivation, vanilla became the popular flavor it is today.

Although Mexico still produces vanilla for world markets, Indonesia and Madagascar have become the two leading producers. Most other vanilla sources are in other parts of Africa and Indonesia. If the flowers are pollinated, a pod develops with thousands of tiny black seeds. That pod then goes through a series of treatments, including sweating, drying for curing and fermentation, and conditioning to reduce moisture further and develop fragrance. Once it has gone through this process over several months, it is ready to travel back around the world again to every corner of the globe. Although most of us don’t grow this fascinating plant, nearly every one of us can find it in our cabinets.

To a botanical artist, it is the appeal of its lovely pale flowers, its big waxy leaves and airborne roots that make it a fascinating subject, along with its sturdy pods. I’ve been fascinated with orchids for over 30 years, and I had long wanted to paint vanilla. Finally, the time was right. I studied the leaves and habit at the New York Botanical Garden and the US Botanic Garden, making drawings and watercolor studies. At long last, when visiting California’s Huntington Botanical Gardens, it just happened that theirs was in flower. Sketches and watercolor studies were done there of the flowers and the long green pods. A piece of Rory McEwen’s Kelmscott vellum is the surface on which this is painted.

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Read more about this artist’s work: 23rd Annual

Abundant Future-woodin-vanilla-orchid

Vanilla planifolia


Watercolor on vellum

14 x 9-3/8 inches

©2019 Carol Woodin

2024 ASBA - All rights reserved

All artwork copyrighted by the artist. Copying, saving, reposting, or republishing of artwork prohibited without express permission of the artist.

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