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‘Vanilla trail’ winds around the world to lead into the Midwest



Illinois Correspondent


CARLINVILLE, Ill. — Dorothy Durbin has been selling Watkins since 1976 and over the years she said vanilla, cinnamon and pepper have been her bestsellers.

When set up at the Spring Festival in Carlinville, Durbin showed two types of vanilla, a clear and colored vanilla that Watkins produces. This is a U.S.-based business that began with J.R. Watkins creating a liniment to soothe tired muscles. The elixir was derived mainly from natural products.

In 1895 the growing business expanded and vanilla was one of the first products Watkins added. The other two new offerings were pepper and cinnamon.

When learning the details of vanilla, it is amazing the product is cost-effective at all.

According to the Watkins website, it takes nearly a pound of vanilla beans to make one gallon of vanilla extract.

Vanilla comes from a tropical orchid and its name derives from the Spanish word vainilla, meaning "little pod."

The vanilla beans are also referred to as pods or "black flower," after the mature bean, which shrivels and turns black shortly after it is picked.

Neil Gerlowski, director of the Puerto Vallarta Botanical Gardens in Mexico where the vanilla orchid is found, explained, "Vanilla grows from the ground as a vine. In March the vanilla orchid starts to bloom.

"After it is pollinated the pod becomes the vanilla bean and can be harvested and made into vanilla."

Gerlowski said several orchids grow wild in Mexico and because of the value of these plants, recently poaching has become a problem the Mexican authorities are tackling. Poachers have been cutting down entire trees where they find the orchid vine. (Gerlowski noted not all orchids grow as vines on trees; some are epiphytes.)

The Puerto Vallarta Botanical Gardens were started by Robert Price and his mother in 2004 after realizing the need for conservation and environmental awareness in the area. Price was specifically concerned with the number of orchids poachers were taking from the nearby jungles to sell commercially. He envisioned a place where the plants could be propagated and displayed without depleting the local population. The gardens opened to the public in 2005.

The vanilla trail begins in Mexico, with the Totonac Indians who inhabited the Mazantla Valley on its Gulf Coast. When the Aztecs conquered the Totonac they developed a taste for the vanilla and required the Totonac tribe to offer beans as tribute. Later when the Aztecs were defeated by Hernando Cortez, history repeated itself – and they were required to provide the vanilla plant and beans to the Spaniards. It was Cortez who brought vanilla to Europe, mixing it with cacao to create a drink that for years was said to be enjoyed only by the nobility and the wealthy. Queen Elizabeth I’s court suggested vanilla be used as a flavoring, and love of the bean grew from there. Mexico was the chief producer of vanilla until the French introduced it to the Réunion and Mauritius islands. Credit for vanilla expansion goes to Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave from Réunion Island that discovered how to pollinate the flowers by hand.

This changed the face of vanilla growing and large vanilla plantations began production on Réunion, which was known as the Ile de Bourbon. From there, Madagascar and other countries began producing the vanilla bean; Mexico still produces vanilla, but in a much smaller capacity.

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