Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Luscious Substance by Tim Ecott - review by Christopher Ondaatje

Christopher Ondaatje

The Potent Pod

Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Luscious Substance


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ONE OF THE more unusual stories told by Tim Ecott in this well-researched history of van& is about how a young slave boy from the French island of Réunion, in the Indian ocean, became the first person to hand-fertilise a vanilla flower. In 1841, a wealthy planter was surprised to find two fruits growing on his solitary vanilla vine, which had been sterile for twenty years. lnspecting the orchid with one of his slaves, the planter was further astonished when the young boy, Edmond Albius, claimed to have fertilised the flower himself. Albius then 'proceeded to peel back the lip of the small orchid with his thumb, and with the aid of a small stick, lift the rostellum out of the way and press the anther and the stigmatic surfaces together'. A different version of the now famous legend was told to the author by another grower in Réunion: ‘Edmond was in the garden with a creole girl… Well, to impress this girl, the boy told her he could show her the male and female parts of an orchid. You can imagine - la fécondation - it is a very sensual process. Afterwards, Edmond suggested that he could do to the girl what he had just done to the orchid.' Whatever the truth about its origins, the young slave's trick, le geste d’Edmond, changed the commercial future of vanilla for ever. Up until 1841, the British in India, the Spanish in the Philippines, and the Dutch in Java had come to believe, resignedly, that outside its native Mexico, where bees fertilised flowers naturally, vanilla would only bear fruit by luck.

The vanilla vine can grow to a length of over 100 feet and is one of over 25,000 species of orchid. Strangely, it is the only one that is able to produce an agriculturally valuable crop. The plant itself has only a slight smell. However, when the pale yellow flowers

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