vanilla, a plant of the genus Vanilla of the family Orchidaceae (orchid family). Vines of hot, damp climates, most are indigenous to Central and South America, especially Mexico, but are now cultivated in other tropical regions. The fruits yield vanilla, a flavoring popular since pre-Columbian times, when the Aztecs used it in making chocolate. The commercial vanilla plant is usually V. planifolia or V. fragrans. Since its natural pollinating agents (certain bees and hummingbirds) are uniquely adapted for this function, commercial plants must be pollinated by hand. The source of the flavor is an aromatic essence, vanillin, which crystallizes on the outside of the seed pod after a series of curing and drying processes. Vanilla flavoring is also obtained from the tonka bean, although now it is most commonly manufactured by the cheaper process of artificially synthesizing vanillin, as from coal tar, clove oil, or lignin, a byproduct of paper manufacture. Vanilla is usually marketed as an alcoholic extract for use as food and tobacco flavoring and in perfumery. Vanilla is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Liliopsida, order Orchidales, family Orchidaceae.
See P. Rain, Vanilla (2004).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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