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Botany of Ice Cream: Vanilla planifolia

It seems ludicrous to argue that the most popular flavor of ice cream in the world is underappreciated. And yet, it is! Although more vanilla ice cream is sold per year than any other flavor, this best-seller has a reputation for being boring. That’s a real shame, because the more you learn about vanilla, the more there is to think about! Here are five awesome facts that may make you pause before calling that pint of vanilla in your freezer “plain.”

author Nichole Emanuel with a vanilla orchid at the Smithsonian Gardens

author Nichole Emanuel with a vanilla orchid at the Smithsonian Gardens

1) When you eat vanilla, you are tasting an orchid

Vanilla extract is made from the seeds of a vanilla orchid. There are actually over 100 different species within the group known as vanilla orchids, but the vast majority of vanilla we consume comes from one species (Vanilla planifolia) and its close relatives. Vanilla orchids grow like vines, twining around and climbing up other plants. Most species have thick, tough leaves and large flowers that are typically white, cream, or greenish in color.

2) The vanilla bean is not a bean

You’ve probably seen ice cream marketed as “vanilla bean” flavor. The fruit of the vanilla plant is commonly referred to as a vanilla bean, but botanically-speaking, only the plant family Fabaceae produces true beans; if you want to be biologically accurate (and impress your friends!) you can refer to the fruit of a vanilla orchid as a dehiscent capsule. But whatever you call it, the vanilla orchid’s fruit is quite amazing. The thin seed pods range from about four to eight inches in length, and each one contains thousands of nearly microscopic orchid seeds.

3) Vanilla is an incredibly complex flavor

It is the seeds that hold the chemicals which create the distinctive odor and taste of vanilla. A good deal of that taste can be attributed to a compound called “vanillin,” which can be synthesized in a laboratory. Artificial vanilla flavoring consists solely of synthesized vanillin, and today it is more commonly used in foods and beverages than natural vanilla extract (some estimates suggest that over 90% of “vanilla-flavored” products contain no actual vanilla). But vanillin is only one of several hundred flavor compounds found in the vanilla seed pod! Natural extract contains these other chemicals.

4) Vanilla flowers bloom for less than a day

When the vanilla orchid reaches maturity and produces flowers, you have less than a day to enjoy them! A vanilla flower opens in the morning, and within 24 hours it will wilt and drop off the plant. This is a tricky growth habit for vanilla-producers to work with, because unlike most of our crops, vanilla must be pollinated by hand. Using a stick and an agile hand, you can take the pollen from one vanilla flower and transfer it to another. If all goes well, then about nine months later this fertilized flower will produce a precious seed pod.

If you’re a vanilla loyalist whose choice in ice cream has been mocked by friends or family, try shooting this challenge right back: “Tell me, what is the interesting origin of that other flavor you’re having-- did it come from an orchid? Was it grown in a tropical jungle where lemurs dwell? Has it been appreciated for centuries by everyone from the ancient Aztec monarchs to Thomas Jefferson? Oh, it hasn’t? I’m sorry, I guess that flavor just doesn’t seem as exciting to me as my vanilla cone!”

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