Reunion Island is known all over the world for the quality of its vanilla and one of its main exports. But although the vanilla orchid is not native to Reunion, the island played a very important role in its cultivation and processing.
The vanilla orchid was first discovered in Mexico where it was used by the Aztecs and the Totonac people to add flavor to their cocoa drinks. The orchid was then brought back to Europe by conquistadors in the 16th century but its cultivation was very difficult because the plant could only be pollinated by a bee that only lived in Mexico.
Only with the French colonization of Reunion Island and later the discovery of a cheap method of artificial pollination of the vanilla flower by the young Edmond Albius in 1841, did the intensive culture of vanilla start to spread in the tropics.
The cultivation of vanilla is very labor and time intensive, thus making it the second most expensive spice after saffron. Despite the invention of artificial extracts of vanilla, natural vanilla is still prized all over the world. It is used in the making of perfumes and in cooking. Nowadays, the milk industry is the one which uses the greatest amount of natural vanilla in the world.
Although Reunion Island was for some time the leading exporter of vanilla pods, nowadays Indonesia leads the way, followed by Madagascar and China. The biggest consumers of vanilla are the United States, Europe, Japan and Polynesia.
In Reunion Island, vanilla is mostly cultivated in the East and South-East. It is harvested between June and December. During your holidays in Reunion Island it should be possible to visit a vanilla plantation, especially near the town of Saint-André.