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Pollination is required to get the vanilla fruit from which the flavoring is derived. In 1837, Belgian botanist Charles Francois Antoine Morren discovered this fact and pioneered a method of artificially pollinating the plant. The method proved financially unworkable and was not deployed commercially. In 1841, Edmond Albius, a slave who lived on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, discovered at the age of 12 that the plant could be hand-pollinated. Hand-pollination allowed global cultivation of the plant.
Until the mid-19th century, Mexico was the chief producer of vanilla. In 1819, French entrepreneurs shipped vanilla fruits to the islands of Reunion and Mauritius in hopes of producing vanilla there. After Edmond Albius discovered how to pollinate the flowers quickly by hand, the pods began to thrive. Soon, the tropical orchids were sent from Reunion to the Comoros Islands, Seychelles, and Madagascar, along with instructions for pollinating them. By 1898, Madagascar, Reunion, and the Comoros Islands produced 200 metric tons of vanilla beans, about 80% of world production. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Indonesia is currently responsible for the vast majority of the world's Bourbon vanilla production and 58% of the world total vanilla fruit production.
The distinctively flavored compounds are found in the fruit, which results from the pollination of the flower. These seed pods are roughly a third of an inch by six inches, and brownish red to black when ripe. Inside of these pods is an oily liquid full of tiny seeds. One flower produces one fruit. V. planifolia flowers are hermaphroditic: they carry both male (anther) and female (stigma) organs. However, self-pollination is blocked by a membrane which separates those organs. The flowers can be naturally pollinated by bees of genus Melipona (abeja de monte or mountain bee), by bee genus Eulaema, or by hummingbirds. The Melipona bee provided Mexico with a 300-year-long advantage on vanilla production from the time it was first discovered by Europeans. The first vanilla orchid to flower in Europe was in the London collection of the Honourable Charles Greville in 1806. Cuttings from that plant went to Netherlands and Paris, from which the French first transplanted the vines to their overseas colonies. The vines grew, but would not fruit outside Mexico. Growers tried to bring this bee into other growing locales, to no avail. The only way to produce fruits without the bees is artificial pollination. Today, even in Mexico, hand pollination is used extensively.
Before planting the cuttings, trees to support the vine must be planted at least three months before sowing the cuttings. Pits of 30 30 30 cm are dug 30 cm (12 in) away from the tree and filled with farm yard manure (vermicompost), sand and top soil mixed well. An average of 2000 cuttings can be planted per hectare (2.5 acres). One important consideration is that when planting the cuttings from the base, four leaves should be pruned and the pruned basal point must be pressed into the soil in a way such that the nodes are in close contact with the soil, and are placed at a depth of 15 to 20 cm (5.9 to 7.9 in). The top portion of the cutting is tied to the tree using natural fibers such as banana or hemp.
Biological control of the spread of such diseases can be managed by applying to the soil Trichoderma (0.5 kg (1.1 lb) per plant in the rhizosphere) and foliar application of pseudomonas (0.2%). Mosaic virus, leaf curl, and cymbidium mosaic potex virus are the common viral diseases. These diseases are transmitted through the sap, so affected plants must be destroyed. The insect pests of vanilla include beetles and weevils that attack the flower, caterpillars, snakes, and slugs that damage the tender parts of shoot, flower buds, and immature fruit, and grasshoppers that affect cutting shoot tips. If organic agriculture is practiced, insecticides are avoided, and mechanical measures are adopted for pest management. Most of these practices are implemented under greenhouse cultivation, since such field conditions are very difficult to achieve.
The vegetative tissue of the vanilla pod is killed to stop the vegetative growth of the pods and disrupt the cells and tissue of the fruits, which initiates enzymatic reactions responsible for the aroma. The method of killing varies, but may be accomplished by heating in hot water, freezing, or scratching, or killing by heating in an oven or exposing the beans to direct sunlight. The different methods give different profiles of enzymatic activity.
Conditioning is performed by storing the pods for five to six months in closed boxes, where the fragrance develops. The processed fruits are sorted, graded, bundled, and wrapped in paraffin paper and preserved for the development of desired bean qualities, especially flavor and aroma. The cured vanilla fruits contain an average of 2.5% vanillin.