Not everyone is aware that vainilla (Vanilla planifolia) is a gift from Mexico first cultivated by the Totonacs. When the Aztecs conquered the Totonacs, they paid their tributes in vanilla, which they called Xanath, meaning “hidden flower.” In Totonac myth, Tzacopontziza was a young girl in love with a poor farmer named Zcatan-oxga. Tzacopontziza’s beauty was noticed by the god of happiness, who tried to woo her. Tzacopontziza refused his advances. Angered by his rejection, the god of happiness made a deal with Tzacopontziza’s father for her hand in marriage. Tzacopontziza refused the marriage and ran away with her beloved. They were captured and executed, their hearts thrown into a ravine. Her heart grew into the orchid that gives us the vainilla pod and his became a bush that supported its viney weight. In other versions of the myth, the lovely Tzacopontziza had been given into temple service by her parents, and by running away with her poor farmer she committed sacrilege which ended in death for both.
Xanath was considered sacred and used as a fragrance in temples by the Totonacs. The flowers were stored in amulets as a protective force. The Aztecs, too, revered this extract. The bitter drink xocolatl was flavored with a dash of vanilla as recorded by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a Spanish soldier. The Spanish name for this flavoring comes from the word for pod “vaina.” So “vainilla” is little pod, not very original at all. In Nahuatl, cuauhmecaexotl is the vanilla plant. The Zoque-Popoluca, who live in the southern part of Veracruz, call this plant tlilxóchitl, and the Mexicas use the term tich moya which means “black flower.”
Hernán Cortés is given credit for taking this flavoring to Europe in the 1500s. However, the transplanted seeds never produced vanilla beans due to a lack of pollinators.
Vanilla is one of the most expensive spices in the world because extraction is so labor-intensive. The orchid plant vanilla planifolia is a clinging vine that can get up to 300 feet long. It can take up to three years for the plant to mature enough to flower. Melipona bees, orchid bees (Euglossini), and hummingbirds are the primary pollinators of the greenish-yellow flower that only blooms for 24 hours. Cultivated vanilla planifolia is pollinated by hand. Vanilla beans are also harvested by hand as they ripen and then cured. From pollination to harvest, it takes 9 months. Some species of the orchid vanilla planifolia are found in remote areas of Oaxaca, Puebla, and Veracruz and in danger of extinction.
Traditionally, vainilla is used as a gastro-intestinal anti-inflammatory and to treat diarrhea. The aroma is believed to reduce anxiety and depression and is prescribed in cases of susto (sudden fear), up to 25 drops a day in coffee, tea, or milk. The Cruz-Badiano codex has the first recorded illustration of the vanilla planifolia plant. The Florentine Codex records a remedy for cough made from vainilla, cacao(Theobroma cacao), and mecaxóchitl (Piper auritum).
Vanilla has between 250 and 500 different fragrance and flavor components. The most prominent is vanillin. This extract has been used to treat muscle inflammation and has been shown to inhibit cancer cell growth and useful as an alternative treatment for lung cancer.
Té de Vainilla y Alhucema para el estrés
- 2 sprigs of fresh alhucema (Lavandula angustifolia)
- ¼ teaspoon of vainilla extract (Vanilla planifolia)
Boil 2 cups of water. Add the alhucema and allow to steep covered for no more than 5 minutes. Strain. Add the vainilla. Take the time to inhale the aroma as you enjoy the tea.
Interested in natural remedies? Uncover herbal remedies from traditional Mexican sources for healing and wellness in the Exploring Traditional Herbal Remedies in Mexico series.