General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 28 Feb 2021/5 Monkey
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Vanilla, Florentine Codex

Thank Mexico for vanilla!

For 300 years Mexico was the only producer of vanilla in the world... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: ‘Vanilla’ means ‘little sheath’ in Spanish
Pic 1: ‘Vanilla’ means ‘little sheath’ in Spanish

Our word ‘vanilla’ - similar in most European languages - comes from the Spanish vainilla, meaning little ‘vaina’ or sheath (close-fitting cover): if you look at Pic 1 you can see why. The Aztecs called it tlilxóchitl in Náhuatl, meaning ‘black flower’ (tlil or tlilli = black, xóchitl or sometimes súchil = flower).

Pic 2: ‘Tlilxóchitl’ (Vanilla) [L/H side] and other edible plants, Codex Badianus, plate 104
Pic 2: ‘Tlilxóchitl’ (Vanilla) [L/H side] and other edible plants, Codex Badianus, plate 104 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs flavoured their chocolate with it, giving Europeans the idea. Now, Madagascar produces 80% of the world supply of vanilla; in Mexico it’s still produced in the states of Veracruz and Hidalgo, where it’s used medicinally to cure fever and pains in the womb and stomach.

Pic 3: Part of the Aztec recipe for ‘The Traveller’s Safeguard’ (Codex Badianus)
Pic 3: Part of the Aztec recipe for ‘The Traveller’s Safeguard’ (Codex Badianus) (Click on image to enlarge)

In The Codex Badianus or Badianus Manuscript (Pics 2 & 3) - the first medical text book in the Americas, written by an Aztec doctor in 1552 - vanilla is included in a recipe for a charm called ‘The Traveller’s Safeguard’ (‘Viatoris Praesidium’ - Aztec scribes were taught to write in Latin after the Conquest); mixed with other herbs to promote sleep; and in another lotion used ‘against fatigue of those holding public office’.

Pic 4: Pathway to vanilla... the Vallejo family vanilla plantation, Taracuán, Papantla, Veracruz, Mexico
Pic 4: Pathway to vanilla... the Vallejo family vanilla plantation, Taracuán, Papantla, Veracruz, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

Tlilxóchitl (‘Vanilla fragrans’ to give it its offical western name) was one of the medicinal plants requested by Moctezuma to stock his famous tropical botanical garden at Huaxtepec.

Pic 5: vanilla pods
Pic 5: vanilla pods

Vanilla beans are the seed of the climbing tropical orchid, Vanilla planifolia, the only orchid of the 350 known varieties to produce an edible product. Growing today as a vine it needs the support of trees or poles - then it can reach a height of about 5 metres. The flowers have a narrow bell surrounded by thin petals which develop slowly over several months into long narrow pods about 12-15 cm long. Vanilla extract is made by cutting the beans into small pieces and soaking in successive quantities of hot 65-70% alcohol.

Certainly the Aztecs appreciated its fine aroma and medicinal qualities: in the Florentine Codex (main picture) the scribe has written (in Náhuatl) ‘It is cord-like... its bean is green, but it is black when dried; wherefore it is called tlilxochitl... It is of pleasing odour, fragrant - a precious thing, wonderful, marvellous. It is of pleasing odour, perfect, superb. It is potable in chocolate. It creeps, constantly creeps, travels, sends out a shoot, forms foliage, produces a bean, forms a bean.’

‘...Thus, from the blood of a princess, was born vanilla, which in Totonac is called “caxixanath”, the recondite flower, and in Aztec “tlilxochitl”, the black flower.’ Read the full, rather gruesome story of the Totonac legend of vanilla by following the link below (and the other to learn about Aztec chocolate...)

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: Image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994 (someone uploaded our image to the vanilla entry on Wikipedia without acknowledging us as the source - naughty!)
• Pix 1 & 5: from internet sources (but can’t recall which!)
• Badianus Manuscript images scanned from our own copy of ‘The Badianus Manuscript (Codex Barberini, Latin 241), John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1940
• Pic 4: photo courtesy of Dra. Rebeca Menchaca, who works at the University of Veracruz, researching vanilla orchids

Now for chocolate...

The legend of Vanilla
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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: We’ve changed the URL - thanks for letting us know and good wishes.
Mexicolore replies: Many thanks for this kind invitation, Sylvia! It’s a tempting offer. (Senen, below, take note...)
Mexicolore replies: Try the website, they have well over 100!: direct link -
Mexicolore replies: Sorry, Senen! Being in the UK that’s hard for us to answer. Could someone living in Mexico help here...?