Vanilla (genus)

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For other uses, see vanilla (disambiguation).
Temporal range: Early Cretaceous - Recent
109–0 Ma
Flat-leaved Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Monocots
Order: Asparagales
Family: Orchidaceae
Subfamily: Vanilloideae
Tribe: Vanilleae
Subtribe: Vanillinae
Genus: Vanilla
Plumier ex Mill., 1754

see List of Vanilla species

Map Vanilla.png
Green: Distribution of Vanilla species
  • Vanillophorum Neck.
  • Myrobroma Salisb.
  • Dictyophyllaria Garay
  • Miguelia Aver.

Vanilla, the vanilla orchids, form a flowering plant genus of about 110 species in the orchid family (Orchidaceae). The most widely known member is the flat-leaved vanilla (V. planifolia), native to Mexico, from which commercial vanilla flavoring is derived. It is the only orchid widely used for industrial purposes in flavoring such products as foods, beverages and cosmetics, and is recognized as the most popular aroma and flavor.[2] The key constituent imparting its popular characteristics is the phenolic aldehyde, vanillin.[3]

This evergreen genus occurs worldwide in tropical and subtropical regions, from tropical America to tropical Asia, New Guinea and West Africa.[1] Five species are known from the contiguous United States, all limited to southern Florida.[4]

The genus was established in 1754 by Plumier, based on J. Miller. The word vanilla, derived from the diminutive of the Spanish word vaina (vaina itself meaning sheath or pod), simply translates as little pod.


Flat-leaved Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) habitus

This genus of vine-like plants has a monopodial climbing habitus. They can form long thin stems with a length of more than 35 m, with alternate leaves spread along their length. The short, oblong, dark green leaves of Vanilla are thick and leathery, even fleshy in some species. But there are also a significant number of species that have their leaves reduced to scales or have become nearly or totally leafless and appear to use their green climbing stems for photosynthesis. Long and strong aerial roots grow from each node.

The racemose inflorescences' short-lived flowers arise successively on short peduncles from the leaf axils or scales. There may be up to 100 flowers on a single raceme, but usually no less than 20. The flowers are quite large and attractive with white, green, greenish yellow or cream colors. The flowers' sepals and petals are similar. The lip is tubular-shaped and surrounds the long, bristly column, opening up, as the bell of a trumpet, at its apex. The anther is at the top of the column and hangs over the stigma, separated by the rostellum. Most Vanilla flowers have a sweet scent.

Blooming occurs only when the flowers are fully grown. Each flower opens up in the morning and closes late in the afternoon on the same day, never to re-open. If pollination has not occurred meanwhile, it will be shed. The flowers are self-fertile but need pollinators to perform this task. The flowers are presumed to be pollinated by stingless bees (e.g. Melipona) and certain hummingbirds, which visit the flowers primarily for nectar. Hand pollination is the most reliable method in commercially grown Vanilla.

The fruit is termed "vanilla bean", though true beans are fabaceaen eudicots not at all closely related to orchids. Rather, the vanilla fruit is technically an elongate, fleshy and later dehiscent capsule 10–20 cm long. It ripens gradually for 8 to 9 months after flowering, eventually turning black in color and giving off a strong aroma. Each pod contains thousands of minute seeds, and both the pods and seeds within are used to create vanilla flavoring.

Vanilla species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species, such as the wooly bear moths Hypercompe eridanus and H. icasia. Vanilla plantations require some sort of tree planting for the orchids to climb up on; off-season or when abandoned, they may serve as habitat for animals of open forest, e.g. on the Comoros for Robert Mertens' Day Gecko (Phelsuma robertmertensi).

Selected species[edit]

The taxonomy of the genus Vanilla is complex.[5]

see List of Vanilla species

This is a partial list of species or synonyms:

Aroma and flavor[edit]

Main article: Vanilla
See also: Vanilla extract

Regarded as the world's most popular aroma and flavor,[7] vanilla contains the phenolic aldehyde, vanillin, as well as anisaldehyde, together accounting for its predominant sensory characteristics.[3] Vanilla is a widely used aroma and flavor compound for foods, beverages and cosmetics,[2][7] as indicated by its popularity as an ice cream flavor.[8]


  1. ^ a b "World Checklist of Selected Plant Families: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew". 
  2. ^ a b Sinha, A. K.; Sharma, U. K.; Sharma, N (2008). "A comprehensive review on vanilla flavor: Extraction, isolation and quantification of vanillin and others constituents". International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. 59 (4): 299–326. doi:10.1080/09687630701539350. PMID 17886091. 
  3. ^ a b Takahashi M, Inai Y, Miyazawa N, Kurobayashi Y, Fujita A (2013). "Identification of the key odorants in Tahitian cured vanilla beans (Vanilla tahitensis) by GC-MS and an aroma extract dilution analysis". Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 77 (3): 601–5. doi:10.1271/bbb.120840. PMID 23470766. 
  4. ^ "Vanilla in Flora of North America @". 
  5. ^ Bory, Séverine; Michel Grisoni; Marie-France Duval; Pascale Besse (July 21, 2007). "Biodiversity and preservation of vanilla: present state of knowledge". Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. Springer Netherlands. 55 (4): 551–571. doi:10.1007/s10722-007-9260-3. ISSN 1573-5109. 
  6. ^ "GRIN Species Records of Vanilla". Germplasm Resources Information Network. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved 2011-03-02. 
  7. ^ a b Rain, Patricia (2004). Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World's Most Popular Flavor and Fragrance. Tarcher. ISBN 9781585423637. 
  8. ^ "Vanilla remains top ice cream flavor with Americans". International Dairy Foods Association, Washington, DC. 23 July 2013. Retrieved 29 August 2016. 

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