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Illustration of vanilla and Mesoamerican warriors by Heriberto García Rivas

Aztec advances (16): vanilla

This is the sixteenth in a series of entries based on information in the Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield (Facts on File, 2002). Vanilla, in Sophie Coe’s words, is ‘one of the few members of the enormous orchid family that is valued for anything besides cut flowers’. it was highly valued in ancient Mesoamerica... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Vanilla planifolia vine growing at the Eden Project, England
Pic 1: Vanilla planifolia vine growing at the Eden Project, England (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Vanilla is a flavouring extract made from the bean of one of two species of orchid plants, also called vanilla, indigenous to Mesoamerica. The first variety (Vanilla planifolia or V. fragrans) is the most commonly used... Vanilla vines, which thrive in a hot, moist climate, climb to a height of several feet, using trees as supports. The plants flower once a year. The seedpods that are produced when the flower dies form the basis of vanilla. Looking somewhat like a string bean, they contain millions of seeds. American Indians were the first to discover the flavourful properties of these [two] varieties out of over 90 varieties of orchids and to domesticate them. They cultivated vanilla and pollinated the flowers by hand. Today vanilla is primarily used as a flavouring for desserts.
’Just as cacao must be processed before it becomes chocolate, vanilla beans just be cured to bring out their vanillin, the essential oil that produces the flavour.

Pic 2: Vanilla planifolia pods, Kew Gardens, England
Pic 2: Vanilla planifolia pods, Kew Gardens, England (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The indigenous people of Mesoamerica discovered this four-step process. First, they wilted the beans to begin the enzyme-producing reactions that provide the flavour. Next, they heated the beans to speed the flavour production and prevent them from fermenting or rotting. This also turned the pods their characteristic brown colour. Next, they dried the pods at room temperature. Finally, they conditioned them by putting them in closed boxes for about three months.’
Today, it’s estimated that there are from 169 to over 200 chemical components - other than vanillin - in the aroma of vanilla. It was, incidentally, Alonso de Molina, in his 1571 Vocabulario en lengua castellana y mexicana who first named the plant vainilla (‘little pod’) in Spanish.

Pic 3: Vanilla depicted in Book XI of the Florentine Codex - shortly after the scribes ran out of coloured ink!
Pic 3: Vanilla depicted in Book XI of the Florentine Codex - shortly after the scribes ran out of coloured ink! (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs had a different name for it, mentioned twice in Book XI of the Florentine Codex:-
’It is cord-like... its bean is green, but it is black when dried; wherefore it is called tlilxóchitl [’black flower’ in Nahuatl]. It is perfumed, fragrant, precious, good, potable, a medicine. Roasted, this is mixed with chocolate.
’It is a climber, one which sends out shoots... It is glistening; within, it is resinous. It is of pleasing odour, fragrant - a precious thing, wonderful, marvellous. it is of pleasing odour, perfect, superb.’
Here the Nahua scribe points to vanilla’s three main applications: as a perfume, a flavouring for chocolate, and a medicinal remedy (others have suggested it might also have been used as an aphrodisiac and as a good-luck ‘safeguard’ for travellers).

Pic 4: ‘Mecaxóchitl’ and ‘tlilxóchitl’ (vanilla), Badianus Manuscript, fol. 104 (detail)
Pic 4: ‘Mecaxóchitl’ and ‘tlilxóchitl’ (vanilla), Badianus Manuscript, fol. 104 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Sixteenth century writers have documented a range of medicinal and remedial applications for vanilla by the Mexica: from treating indigestion to infestation with lice, and from fatigue to ‘odour in the armpits’.
In the Badianus Manuscript we find a lengthy remedy ‘for the fatigue of those administering the government and holding public office’, in which ‘a perfumed herb bath was given, the flowers [including vanilla] being collected early in the morning at dawn so that the greatest amount of perfume might be obtained...
’Nor was this ailment treated lightly [writes the commentator]. If one could judge from the length and the number of substances used, it was considered of greater importance than any other treatment in the text’.
Interestingly, in the illustration accompanying the reference to vanilla (pic 4) the plant is shown almost entwined with another vine, mecaxóchitl (related to black pepper).

Pic 5: Hand-coloured lithograph titled ‘Gente de Tierra Caliente entre Papantla y Misantla’ by Carl Nebel, 1836 - romanticising the people and land of the Totonacs
Pic 5: Hand-coloured lithograph titled ‘Gente de Tierra Caliente entre Papantla y Misantla’ by Carl Nebel, 1836 - romanticising the people and land of the Totonacs (Click on image to enlarge)

Indeed, the naturalist and court physician to the king of Spain, Francisco Hernández de Toledo, only mentions vanilla in reference to mecaxóchitl (in chapter LVIII of his Historia de las plantas de Nueva España), as two of three top contenders (the third being cacao) for Aztec aphrodisiacs.
Vanilla also features in a second important ‘triad integrated as the chocolate cultural complex’ (Barrera & Aliphat), this time alongside cacao and achiote. This is its best known context, one which so impressed the Spanish invaders and which is claimed to have come originally from Totonacapan, the Land of the Totonac People (pic 5), together with the rather tragic Legend of Vanilla (follow link below).

Pic 6: Vanilla planifolia flower
Pic 6: Vanilla planifolia flower (Click on image to enlarge)

Few are aware that, following the arrival of the Spanish to Mexico, ALL the ancient flavourings for chocolate were eventually changed in order to make it more appealing to the European palate, with one key exception - ‘making vanilla the only consistent native flavouring to fragrance... the beverage’ (Rain). And the rest, as they say, is history...

Sources (NOT in order):-
Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield (Facts on File, 2002)
The Badianus Manuscript/An Aztec Herbal of 1552, facsimile edition (The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1940)
Florentine Codex (Book XI), translated/edited by Charles E Dibble and Arthur J O Anderson, School of American Research & University of Utah, 1974
The Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo: Flora The Aztec Herbal by Martin Clayton, Luigi Guerrini & Alejandro de Ávila, The Royal Collection, London, 2009
Arqueología Mexicana special edition no. 84 (February 2019) ‘Cultivos Mesoamericanos’
Historia de las plantas de Nueva España by Francisco Hernández, Imprenta Universitaria, Mexico, 1943
America’s First Cuisines by Sophie D. Coe, University of Texas Press, 1994
Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favourite Flavour and Fragrance by Patricia Rain, Penguin, 2004
• ‘The Itza Maya Control over Cacao’ by Laura Caso Barrera & Mario Aliphat F., in Chocolate in Mesoamerica ed. Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2006.

Picture sources:-
• Main: illustration scanned from García Rivas, Heriberto (1991) Cocina Prehispánica Mexicana, Editorial Panorama, Mexico DF
• Pic 1: photo downloaded from the Eden Project website (link below)
• Pic 2: photo downloaded from Kew Science website (link below)
• Pic 3: image from the Florentine Codex, Book XI, scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 4: image scanned from the Badianus Manuscript (see above)
• Pic 5: image from Wikipedia (Totonacapan)
• Pic 6: image from Wikipedia (Vanilla).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Apr 07th 2021

‘Thank Mexico for vanilla!’

The legend of vanilla
The Eden Project: vanilla
Kew Science: Vanilla planifolia Andrews
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