General Description / Cultural Significance
Mexico is a large country which ranges all the way from the southern United States border, along the Gulf of Mexico and the North Pacific Ocean, to Guatemala and Belize. A country of extremes, Mexico is home to every landscape from arid desert to beachy coast lines and canyons to volcano ranges. Across many different sub-cultures, indigenous histories, and languages, there is a single aromatic plant whose presence throughout history unifies the aromatic signature and cuisine of Mexico: Vanilla, Vanilla planifolia.
There is nowhere on Earth where Vanilla plays such a rich role, intertwined with culture and history, as Mexico. Vanilla planifolia is considered epiphytic. The fleshy, perennial grows in soil, nurtured by a symbiotic relationship with fungi, with a vine which grows up the surface of trees. Although Vanilla is cultivated throughout the world, the plant is indigenous only to Mexico and blooms with its bright, beautifully scented flowers throughout La Huasteca region. The plant was first cultivated by Los Totonacas of Veracruz who regarded Vanilla as a scared herb for use in ritual offerings, as a perfume, and a powerful medicine. There is proof that Los Olmecas and Los Huastecas also cultivated Vanilla. When Los Aztecas conquered Los Totonacas, they appropriated these traditions and built off of them. In fact, Los Aztecas were the first to enjoy Vanilla, called tlilxuchotl, in food. The Vanilla bean substance was often stirred with cocoa to make a flavorful, warm drink called xocolatl. Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, called this drink divine, touting its rejuvenating and spiriting effects. Anthropologists speculate xocolatl was also a common Aztec cure for tuberculosis. The plant was mixed with meaningful herbs and crafted into amulets for protection. When Hernan Cortez, colonizer of Mexico, arrived at the doorsteps of the empire, the Aztec king served him this chocolate and Vanilla concoction. Cortez was so taken with the unique flavoring of the drink that he took Vanilla samples back with him on the return trip to Spain, renaming the plant and planting the seed of the worldwide fascination with Vanilla to come. Vanilla planifolia is now grown throughout the tropical world where the process of sweating, drying, and conditioning the bean has become an art. Each Vanilla plant has a production lifespan of approximately ten years.
Vanilla needs no explanation for its fame as a delightful flavor in cooking across all countries and cultures. Lesser known are the practical and medicinal properties of Vanilla planifolia. Los Aztecas used many orchid species as glue and resin, and an infusion of the Vanilla planifolia pod was drunk as a treatment for hysteria, fevers, impotence, rheumatism, and lethargy. Many ancient cultures of Mexico utilized Vanilla as a treatment for loss of appetite and digestion issues. Today, Vanilla is proven to have calming, anti-anxiety effects. The plant’s bean is antioxidant, anticarcinogenic, and antidepressant, and has long been used as an aphrodisiac, carminative, and stimulant. Its hemoprotective abilities help prevent cellular degradation in those with sickle cell anemia and the plant can be used to lower blood pressure, relieve coughs, and assuage nausea. Finally, Vanilla’s constituents have even demonstrated anti-cancer effects.
Though scientific research has helped clarify the multi-dimensional abilities of Vanilla, the cultural prevalence of Vanilla is waning in Mexico. The loss of Totonaca culture overtime has resulted in the disappearance of traditional healers who are well versed in the medicinal use of Vanilla. Meanwhile, the changing economic landscape of Vanilla exports has distanced the Mexican people from the plant. Upon the 1841 discovery of hand pollination for Vanilla, production erupted in Mexico and flourished until the Mexican Revolution brought instability to the region and Madagascar’s Vanilla industry rose to success. Massive deforestation throughout the 1900s reduced Mexico’s forests by more than ninety five percent. These tree canopies once protected Vanilla plants from extreme elements and stabilized their growth. Lacking this natural infrastructure, Mexico can only support exporting Vanilla to some United States and European markets today, though not to the extent it once did.
Climate Change / Conservation Status
Due to Mexico’s wide-ranging topography and situation between two oceans, the country is experiencing every possible impact of climate change: tropical cyclones, erratic rainfall, floods, coastal erosion, extreme droughts, frosts, devastation of marine ecosystems, lack of agricultural productivity, and deforestation. Pretty much every aspect of Mexico is touched by climate change.
Vanilla planifolia production has been reduced in Mexico due to an influx of diseases, increased premature fruiting, prolonged droughts, and increasing temperatures. This is a catastrophic realization for Vanilla growers in Mexico whose orchards are already subject to destruction from high winds and flooding. In 2000, a tropical storm wiped out half of Mexico’s Vanilla plantations. The region of Veracruz is still producing 400 to 500 metric tons of Vanilla per year and the country has invested in the region to help it adapt to climate change. However, habitat loss of the Melipona bees, changing temperatures, and alterations in the timing of precipitation are taking its toll on this iconic heirloom plant, both wild and cultivated.
Wild Vanilla only grows within a specific range of altitudes that spans from 150-900 meters above sea level, primarily found in the wet tropical forests of the states of Puebla, Chiapas, and Quintana Roo with Oaxaca having the largest population. Wild Vanilla requires a fungus to germinate, a tree to grow up along, an insect to pollinate it, and a bird or bat to disperse, all of which cannot work in harmony while Mexico’s seasons arrive out of time and the country’s weather becomes increasingly unpredictable. Vanilla planifolia is now officially considered endangered on the IUCN Red List due to fragmentation of the population and decline of mature individuals.
It’s hard to imagine that a plant and country such as Vanilla and Mexico, with hundreds of years of history, co-evolution, discovery, enrichment, and joy, could be abruptly divorced from the culture. Country-wide adaptation to reduced deforestation and carbon emission are turning the hopes of Mexican farmers, traditional healers, and Vanilla consumers around the world into actionable realities, revealing just how everyone benefits from the survival and good health of aromatic plants such as Vanilla.
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