Vanilla fragrans is indigenous to south-eastern Mexico, Guatemala, and other parts of Central America, growing wild as a climber in the forest.
Its use by the Aztecs was recorded by the Spanish conquistadors. Correll (1953) states the "Bernal Diaz, a Spanish officer under Hernando Cortes, was perhaps the first white man to take note of this spice when he observed Montezuma, the intrepid Aztec emperor, drink "chocolatl", a beverage prepared from pulverized seeds of the cacao tree, flavored with ground vanilla beans which the Aztecs call "tlilxochitl", derived from "tlilli", meaning "black", and from "xochitl" interpreted here as meaning "pod". Vanilla beans were considered to be among the rarer tributes paid to the Aztec emperor by his subject tribes. Legend has it that Cortes in 1520 was given chocolate flavored with vanilla by Montezuma, served in golden goblets.
Bernardino de Sehagun, a Franciscan friar, who arrived in Mexico in 1529, wrote about vanilla, saying the the Aztecs used it in cocoa, sweetened with honey, and sold the spice in their markets, but his work, originally written in the Aztec language, was not published until 1829-1830. The Spaniards early imported vanilla beans into Spain, where factories were established in the second half of the sixteenth century for the manufacture of chocolate flavored with vanilla.
Francicso Hernandez, who was sent to Mexico by Philip II of Spain, gave an illustrated account of vanilla in his Rerum Medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus, which was first published in Rome in 1651. In it he translated "tlilxochitl" as "black flowers', a fallacy which Correll (1953) say remained in the literature for many years, although the flowers are greenish yellow in color.
Hugh Morgan, apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I of England, suggested vanilla as a flavoring in its own right. He gave some cured beans to the Flemish botanist, Carolas Clusius, in 1602 and the latter describes them in his Exoticorum Libri Decem of 1605. William Dampier observed vanilla growing in 1626 in the Bay of Campeche in southern Mexico and in 1681 at Boco-Toro in Costa Rica. Formerly, vanilla was used in medicine, as a nerve stimulant, and along with other spices had a reputation as an aphrodisiac. It was also used for scenting tobacco.
The plant appears to have been taken to England prior to 1733 and was then lost (Purseglove, 1972). It was re-introduced by the Marquis of Blandford at the beginning of the nineteenth century and flowered in Charles Greville's collection at Paddington in 1807, Greville supplied cuttings to the botanic gardens in Paris and Antwerp. Two plants were sent from Antwerp to Buitenzorg (Bogor), Java, in 1819, only one of which survived the journey. It flowered in 1825, but did not fruit. Plants were taken to Reunion and from there to Mauritius in 1827. Vanilla was taken to the Malagasy Republic about 1840.
Although the plants grew well in the Old World tropics, fruits were not produced because of the absence of natural pollinators. It was not until Professor Charles Morren of Liege discovered the artificial means of pollination for the production of capsules in 1836 and Edmond Albius, a former slave in Reunion, developed a practical method of artificial pollination in 1841, and which is still used, that commercial production was possible in the eastern hemisphere away from the center of origin.
Vanilla cultivation on a systematic basis was introduced into Java in 1846 by Teysmann, Director of the Buitenzorg (now Bogor) Botanic Gardens. It was the discovery of a satisfactory method of hand pollination and the failure of the sugar cane crop in 1849-56 that gave impetus to cultivation of the crop in Reunion.
Vanilla cuttings are said to have been first introduced into the Seychelles in 1866 and Lionnet (1858) says that vanilla was one of the earliest agricultural industries of the islands, the first exports being made in 1877, expanding rapidly towards the end of the century, and which have since declined. Vanilla was introduced from Manila to Tahiti by Hamelin in 1848, where an important industry developed. Cultivation of the crop began in the Comoros Islands in 1893 and soon spread throughout the islands. Vanilla was cultivated as early as 1839 in Martinique in the West Indies and probably about the same time in Guadeloupe. The plant was introduced into Uganda from Ceylon in 1912 and now has a small production. Former French island possessions are now the main producers of vanilla, with the Malagasy Republic as the major producer followed by Indonesia. Mexico still exports some of the spice.
Vanilla has been widely introduced throughout the tropics where climatic conditions are suitable, but has achieved little importance, except in the countries mentioned above. USA is the largest importer, followed by France and West Germany.