Believe it or not, the span of time between a fruit-bearing orchid being planted and cured vanilla pods being sent to market can be as long as six years. This is due in part to the fact that the plant can take years to mature. Once the pods are harvested they can take six to nine months to cure.
In nature, vanilla orchids are pollinated by a very specific species of bee. Because vanilla is now produced in other parts of the world on such a large scale, and because their flowers remain open for fewer than 24 hours, vanilla orchids are pollinated by hand using a small toothpick-like stick.
Vanilla beans are picked when they are still green and then left to cure and dry in the sun. If you look at an image of a green vanilla bean, you’ll see how dramatic the difference is between the size of a green and brown vanilla pod — some estimates say that a greed pod is as much as four times as large as the subsequent brown one.
Vanilla beans from Tahiti and Mexico are said to have strong cherry and nutmeg flavors, respectively, while Madagascar Bourbon vanilla has the classic vanilla flavor most Americans are familiar with.
According to Nielsen-Massey, a major producer of vanilla since 1907, adding just a few drops of real vanilla extract to a can of paint can help reduce the unpleasant odor as you paint.
It’s widely believed that vanilla is a natural insect repellent. According to Sara Snow, author of Sara Snow’s Fresh Living, mosquitos in particular “can’t stand the smell.” Make your own bug repellent by combining equal parts vanilla extract and water and spraying it on your skin.
Xocolatl (the maize and cacao drink enjoyed by Aztec Emperor Montezuma) also included vanilla pods. It’s said that he offered this drink to Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés when he arrived in Mexico.