Vanilla bean cupcakes – Various types of vanilla bean

Mexico is one of the producer of the vanilla bean until the 1800s when the French took clippings of the vanilla orchid to Reunion Island and began hand-pollinating the plant to produce vanilla. They also placed vanilla in the neighboring French territories of Madagascar, Comoro and Santa Maria. Currently vanilla is produced primarily in Madagascar, China, Mexico and Indonesia, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Beans will be produced in these and many other countries, including the recent production in the U.S. on the Big Island of Hawaii, they are usually classified into four categories.

Mexican Vanilla

Mexico is the native country of the vanilla orchid, but the bean is produced in far smaller quantities here. Mexico\'s production of vanilla falls far short of the Indonesia, Madagascar and China efforts despite its proximity to the world\'s largest vanilla consumer, the United States. Part of the issue is that there have been problems in the past with Mexican vanilla being mixed with the extract of the tonka bean, which contains coumarin, a toxin banned in foods in 1940, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Bourbon-Madagascar Vanilla

Madagascar or Bourbon Vanilla is probably the most well-known product today. Madagascar has been the primary source of the bean for the majority of the past century. The bean itself is the same species originating in Mexico (v. planifolia), but because of the lack of the non-stinging melipona bee in the region to pollinate the orchids, a system of hand-pollination had to be established to make the orchid produce its fruit. The first clippings were brought to the Ile of Bourbon (now Reunion Island) by the French, hence the name Bourbon Vanilla. West Indian Vanilla

West Indian Vanilla comes from an entirely different strain of orchid (v. pompona) and is cultivated in the Caribbean, Central and South America. West Indian Vanilla is not as widely available as other members of its family. The plant itself is present in Florida and the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Tahitian Vanilla

Tahitian vanilla (V. tahitiensis) is native to French Polynesia and is thought to have derived either from a mutation of Mexican vanilla or a cross-pollination of Mexican and an uncultivated strain (V. oderata). The rare spice is a favorite among French and Polynesian gourmets and the orchid it comes from is not found in the wild. The orchid is thought to have been introduced from Guatamala through the Manila Galleon trade, according to a genetic archaeology study from the University of California Riverside.


The Totonaco Indians of Southwestern Mexico first discovered the fruit of the Vanilla planifolia orchid, or vanilla bean, in Mexico. The bean's secrets were passed from the Totonacos to the Aztecs and eventually to Europe as a result of Herman Cortez' visit with Aztec emperor Montezuma.
Montezuma introduced Cortez to a drink called Cholatl, which is a mixture of ground cocoa and corn mixed with vanilla and honey. Being very fond of the new flavors, Cortez introduced the vanilla bean, along with cocoa, to Spain in the early 1500s.