Orchids, the Story of Vanilla and a Spring Wreath

With spring knocking on my door,  I have decided that for this week I shall not talk about Japan (although I still have many stories to tell you about it). There is too much life to ignore! Let the sun shine and let me take you on a vanilla tasting adventure, full of beautiful flowers!

Being a Londoner, I thought it was a good idea to visit the  Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Spring Plant and Orchid Show that took place at the RHS Halls in Westminster, London between 29 – 30 March 2017 @The_RHS.

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I just can’t refrain from telling you about the spectacular, fascinating display of flower power and grace.

Orchids – beautiful phantasma in colour… Some lasting seconds, some lasting months… all beautiful and fragile like the broken song of perishing waves to the shore of an illusive island… Tempting illusions of clouded minds…

The orchid short name comes from Orchidaceae, and it was used for the first time by John Lindley (1799 – 1865), an English botanist (the genus name comes from Ancient Greek orkhis, which literally means ‘testicle’). The name was probably given due to the shape of the flowers. Orchids are one of the largest groups of flowering plants with over 28,000 recognised species within approximately 760 genera.  In biology, genera is the plural for genus, which according to the English Dictionary means ‘a  taxonomic category ranking used in biological classification that is below a family and above a species level, and includes group(s) of species that are structurally similar or phylogenetically related’.

The fascination with orchids has started with the age of exploration open by Spanish and Portuguese and then British, of the new territories of the Americas, the coasts of Africa and the wider region into the Indian Ocean. This interest has grown through the 17th and the 18th century, brought on by the development of the green house. However in time, throughout the 19th and the 20th century, the interest in orchids has shifted from the immense Victorian estate green houses to small, household growers with accent not on importing and discovering new orchid species, but on hybrid horticulture and nursery plants. After the introduction into cultivation of the tropical species during the 19th century, it is believed that horticulturists have developed more than 100,000 orchid hybrids.

There is scientific evidence trapped in fossilized tree resin (amber) that the orchid has been present in the flora for more than 15 – 20 million years. Further genetic sequencing and the phylogenetic patterns have revealed the existence of orchids for more than 70 – 80 million years.

The orchid habitat is literally the most expanded in the world, as we can find species of orchids from sea level to alpine heights and from extreme Northern habitats (i.e. North Canada) to desert lands (i.e. Sahara).  Orchids’ success is owed to their capability to adapt quickly and develop survival mechanisms over millions of years, such as complex floral structures, seeds and pollination and living in symbiosis with earth fungi. Every exotic species has variations, which means the flowers evolved to be pollinated by particular species or types of pollinators. However, this also means that every time a pollinator is at risk of extinction, then the plants they pollinate are at risk to become extinct, too.

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Because of the exquisite orchid flowers that come in huge variety of structures, colours and fragrances, the orchid horticultural trade has been around for over 2000 years in China and Japan and reached a peak in the 19th century when orchids have been commercialised in Europe.

However, the orchid trade has peaked and has expanded few times fold during the past 30 years. Orchids now account for more than 10% in the international fresh cut flower trade. It was estimated that in 2012, the trade value of orchids in the global floriculture trade was more than $500 million, with more than 40 exporting countries and 60 importing countries.  The top exporting country is the Netherlands with approximately 40% share of the world orchid market, followed by Thailand with approximately 29% market share, Taiwan and Singapore both with approximately 10% share and New Zeeland with 6%. The main importing countries are Japan (30%), UK (12%), Italy (10%), France (7%) and the USA (6%).

Like any successful story, besides the legal trade, the high rise in the popularity of the orchids, has led to increase in the illegal trade. This is damaging and places endangered species at risk of extinction. Both, legal and illegal over harvesting of naturally small wild populations, has been linked to the decline of orchid species growth in the wild. Some species such as Paphiopedilum and Phragmipedium (known as the slipper orchids) are at the highest risk, although during the past three decades there have been restrictions placed on the international trade of wild orchids.

The most popular orchid genera in the flower trade are the Dendrobium orchids (with over 1,200 species covers approx. 85% of the market share), the Phalaenopsis (called the moth orchid, this is an orchid genus of approximately 60 species) and the Cymbidium (called the boat orchid, is a genus of 52 evergreen species) accounting for the rest of 15% of the international orchid trade.

However the most famous orchid ever to be discovered is the Vanilla orchid genus which includes the vanilla plant (Vanilla planifolia). The dried seed pods of this orchid have been the key flavour to the development of an entire food industry and cosmetics. The age of Vanilla is estimated to be 60 to 70 million years, although it had only been brought to Europe during the 16th century.

The Story of Vanilla

The story of vanilla is one of passion and discovery. The name vanilla comes from the Spanish word ‘vainilla’ which means ‘little pod’ (named after the vanilla pods).

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Vanilla is originally from the South and Central America and it seems to have been cultivated by the Totonaco Indians living in Mexico, one of the most advanced cultures in the Americas at the time. In the Totonaca mythology, the orchid was born because of Princess Xanat, a divine pricess, who fell in love with a mortal. Although her father had forbidden her to marry her lover, the princess defied him and the lovers ran into the forest where they were followed and killed. The story says that the hearts of the two lovers were laid onto an altar and when their blood reached the earth, orchid flowers grew and blossomed only for a short period of time, which equaled the time they had loved each other while alive.

The Aztecs discovered vanilla when they conquered the Totonaco and it reached Europe after the Spanish had arrived in Mexico in 1519.  It is not sure who brought vanilla to Europe but it is thought this was Hernando Cortes.

The story is that the Aztecs were using vanilla to spice up their chocolate drinks (chocolatl) and this is how Europeans have started to use it (although the story says that the Spanish conquistadors have initially called the chocolatl a ‘pigs drink’, which once they discovered, it seems they could not get enough of – the irony of it?!

And vanilla remained a food enhancer to chocolate and coffee for another century, until Hugh Morgan (1530 – 1613), appointed apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I in 1583, has introduced vanilla to the Queen and Britain as a flavor. It seems Queen Elizabeth I adored vanilla and from there on, another century later we find vanilla used in France, as flavor for ice-cream (it seems ice-cream reached Europe through Italy, brought in from the Far East by Marco Polo in an initial form of a sherbet, which in the 17th century was developed into something more similar to what we know to be ice-cream today).

Mexico has remained the main vanilla producer for another century, until the mid 19th century. However, the French took the initiative to try to cultivate vanilla in their own colonies in the Reunion and the Mauritius. But that was not quite possible because they did not find the mechanisms to ensure appropriate pollination of the flowers. By chance, a young boy from Reunion Island (Edmond Albius was only 12 and was a slave)  has made the crucial discovery that in fact pollination could occur done by hand, from flower to flower. From then on the French developed large vanilla plantations on Reunion (producing the well known Bourbon vanilla), then on the Comoros Islands and Madagascar. By the beginning of the 20th century, Madagascar, Reunion and the Comoros Islands produced about 80 percent of the world production of vanilla beans.

Although the market request for vanilla beans has increased exponentially, the cultivation remains limited to few territories. The vanilla beans are rare and very expensive (it is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron).

Therefore, developments in biochemical research have led to this complex spice being deconstructed with all its 250 and 500 different flavor and fragrance components. And vanillin, one of the most important and prominent vanilla components, has been actually reconstructed in a synthetic form.  Now I don’t want to put you off, but vanillin and not vanilla beans, is used to flavor 99% of the vanilla produce on the world markets (vanilla yogurt, chocolate, cakes etc). And vanillin is being synthetized from really odd byproducts i.e. petrochemicals, lignin – substance of wood pulp used in the paper industry and also castoreum – a secretion from the anal glands of beavers. Yes, I know… I’m also a bit put off! But to re-assure you, the latest is a very minor source of production – thankfully!

Nonetheless, synthetic vanillin is certainly safe for consumption and I am certain that human history, the history of food and perfume would have been a much poorer place without this amazing, most sensual and fragrant of aromas.

Besides Vanilla, some other orchid species (i.e. Cymbidium hookenarium) are being used for food consumption and cooking in traditional cuisines in countries in the South East Asia.

It is clear orchids are special plants, created by nature and our imagination. Between genera and species, they vary in shape and form and grow flowers that can measure from 2 mm (Plztystele jungermannioides) to developing into clusters that can weigh few hundred kilograms to a ton (Grammatophyllum speciosum).  Some species of orchids can survive for 100 years and the flower of orchid can survive from few hours (i.e. vanilla) to 6 months, depending on the species.

Orchids are also in the top 10 most expensive and rarest flowers in the world.  One of them is Rotchschild’s orchid (Paphiopedilum rothschildianum), also known as the Gold of Kinabalu because of its origin. This was discovered in 1987 and it is highly difficult to cultivate because of the rarity of its flowers, which appear only every 10 – 15 years. Although some efforts are being made by cultivators to preserve it, this remains a very rare flower. Currently, its only wild habitat is the Kinabalu National Park in Malaysia, where is fiercely protected. Because of its rarity and price tag that can reach £4500 (approx. $6000), the orchid has been plundered by smugglers and it is now believed to be on the verge of extinction.

Another very rare orchid, which is in fact the most expensive flower ever known to trade, is the Shenzen Nongke orchid, which has been sold at an auction in 2005 for £160,000. This is a hybrid created by a group of agricultural researchers from Shenzhen Nongke Group and it took about 8 years to develop. The flower is highly difficult to cultivate and grows flowers only every 4 – 5 years.

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Orchids are the subject of mythology and have stimulated the imagination of generations through thousands of years. They are full of symbolism and  are associated with nations and countries and have led to magnificent changes for the human history. In numerous countries in South America and in South East Asia, orchid flowers are national flowers, intrinsic part of the ethos and the culture of their people.

Further more, orchids are amazing, fascinating imitators – they have developed structures that resemble other natural beings which have helped them to survive over millennia (i.e. the Bee orchid which lures male bees to ensure pollination with the smell and the bee like appearance). I have added few funny photo exemplars for you to indulge in 🙂

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in the event you want to browse more orchid photos, there is an astonishing photo gallery of a huge variety if you follow this link to the ‘Wild tropical orchids, rare orchids and some hybrids‘ by Pieter C Brower.

I hope that you liked my story about orchids and the story of vanilla! And next time you have vanilla yogurt, you’ll try not to think about where vanillin comes from!

But before leaving you until next week, I have to tell you that during the RHS Orchid Show, being hands on as I am, I have attended a beautiful spring wreath making workshop (if you want, I can give you some tips about flower handmade structures in future blogs).

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And under Helen’s guidance, I have created a very beautiful spring flower wreath, which I have laid at Westminster in the memory of the victims of the terrorist attack from two weeks ago, as a sign of sadness and defiance against all those wanting to destroy who we are and our way of life!

Stay strong and beautiful! Run fast, run strong, run free! Come back next week to hear more about Japan!

The Running Blogger xx

28 thoughts on “Orchids, the Story of Vanilla and a Spring Wreath

  1. Beautiful post! I liked that you included the story of vanilla, which is one of Mexico’s gifts to the world. If you ever come to Mexico, you can visit the little town of Papantla on the Gulf Coast. That’s where vanilla was first cultivated, and you can buy all sorts of vanilla products.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very nice post. I love plants. So true orchids are very unique. The number of orchid species is more than twice the number of bird species, and about four times the number of mammal species.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I will try not to think too hard when I am eating that Vanilla Yogurt. We will see though. I do love the Orchid. I am just afraid of trying to grow it personally as I have heard that they are very temperamental.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s probably because you don’t know few basic rules. Many years ago, when I started to grow orchids I bought myself a very helpful book called Orchid Basics by Brian and Sara Rittershausen – they teach you everything about the potting, watering etc. try that 🙂


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