Mental Floss

The Flavorful History of Vanilla

Caitlin Schneider

Vanilla is just about everywhere, from lip balm to lattes, but don’t let the substance's ubiquity fool you—it took hundreds of years to turn the Mexican orchid into a commonplace taste and fragrance. The video above from Eater offers a brief history of the plant they describe as “so difficult to cultivate it’s surprising anyone knows what it tastes like.”

Totonacs, Aztecs, and Mayans traded vanilla in Central America long before Spanish conquistadors encountered the beans and brought them back to Europe. It was there that royals, bakers, and perfume makers became infatuated with the substance. The fanfare only grew as pollination techniques developed (with help from Edmond Albius and Charles Morren most notably). The desire was so great that even intensive labor didn’t hold vanilla back. Eventually, scientists started extracting it and deriving vanillin from wood pulp and clove oil, which all helped to give vanilla its supreme prominence today. For that, we can all be grateful.