The flavor is mild, the color is muted, and its name has become synonymous with plain. But Vanilla planifolia, the orchid endemic to Mexico, is full of history, a plant domesticated by pre-Hispanic cultures from the Totonacapan region in the Gulf of Mexico.
Today, synthetic vanilla flavoring, including petrochemical derivatives, dominates the market. Only 2% of vanilla flavoring sold worldwide comes from orchids. And, despite being its cradle and home to the only known natural pollinators, Mexico produces less than 8% of the natural vanilla used in recipes around the globe.
But in Huasteca Potosina, the native region of the orchid, local communities are staging a comeback, producing natural vanilla and exporting north.
“Everything I plant in my land matters, but maybe the most important is the vanilla because it brings us a little money.” — María Cristina Sánchez, 60, farmer and healer
“When I was a boy I asked my grandfather what that vine was for. He told me he kept it because it made the coffee plantation smell nice.” — Luis Morales
Palos is an author and farmer based in northeast Mexico.