Edmond Albius (1829 – 9 August 1880) was born into slavery and became an important figure in the cultivation of vanilla. At the age of 12, he invented a technique for pollinating vanilla orchids quickly and profitably. Albius' technique revolutionized the cultivation of vanilla and made it possible to profitably grow vanilla beans away from their native Mexico.
French colonists brought vanilla beans to Réunion and nearby Mauritius in the 1820s with the hope of starting production there. However, the vines were sterile because no insect would pollinate them. In the 1830s, Charles Morren, a professor of botany at the University of Liège in Belgium, developed a method of hand-pollinating vanilla, but his technique was slow and required too much effort to make cultivating vanilla a moneymaking proposition.
In 1841, Albius invented a method to quickly pollinate the vanilla orchid using a thin stick or blade of grass and a simple thumb gesture. Using the stick or grass blade, field hands lift the rostellum, the flap that separates the male anther from the female stigma, and then, with their thumbs, smear the sticky pollen from the anther over the stigma.
Albius’ manual pollination method is still used today, as nearly all vanilla is pollinated by hand. After Albius’s discovery, Réunion became for a time the world's largest supplier of vanilla. French colonists used Albius' technique in Madagascar to cultivate vanilla, and Madagascar remains the world's chief vanilla producer.
In 1848, France outlawed slavery in its colonies, and Albius left the plantation for St. Denis, where he worked as a kitchen servant. He was convicted of stealing jewelry and sentenced to ten years in prison, but the sentence was commuted after five years when the governor granted him clemency in light of his enormous contribution to vanilla production in Réunion.
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