By Maryann Readal
Vanilla is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for December. We can easily conjure up the sweet, calming, and sensual smell of vanilla that we use to flavor some of our favorite desserts. But did you know that there is a legend that explains the origins of the vanilla vine?
Around the year 1000AD, the Totonac people living in the southeastern part of Mexico near Veracruz considered vanilla to be a sacred herb and used it for ritual offerings and as a perfume and medicine. In fact, their city, Paplanta, became known as the city that perfumed the world because of the abundance of vanilla plants growing there.
The Totonacs believed that a beautiful princess named Morning Star once lived in their ancient kingdom in a time before the world knew of the vanilla plant. She was so beautiful that her parents dedicated her to the temple in order to protect her. Every day Morning Star went out to gather flowers for the temple. One day a young prince, Young Deer, spotted her and immediately fell passionately in love with her. As days went by, Young Deer could no longer be content with just watching Morning Star gather flowers. He decided to capture her and run away with her. Morning Star was startled at first but in the end she fell under Young Deer’s spell and agreed to run away with him. Not long into the star-crossed lovers’ escape, the temple priests caught up with them and beheaded both of them.
Soon a strong vine with beautiful, delicate green-white orchid flowers grew up on the spot where the young couple was beheaded. The strong vine with sensual leaves and delicate flowers reminded the people of the two lovers. The flowers turned into fragrant brown pods which had a finer scent than any incense being offered to their gods.
It was then that the priests and the Totonac people came to believe that the blood of the lovers was transformed into the vine and flowers of the vanilla plant and declared it to be a sacred gift to their gods. Some believed that the young prince was transformed into the melipona bee, which is the only bee that is able to pollinate the vanilla flowers.
The Aztecs later conquered the Totonacs and they also fell in love with the vanilla plant and forced the Totonacs to give them the pods as taxes. The Aztecs added the pods to their chocolate drink and considered them to be an aphrodisiac. A suitable addition to the legend of vanilla, I believe.
For more information about vanilla and to find out to make your own vanilla extract, go to The Herb Society of America Herb of the Month webpage.
Maryann is the secretary of The Herb Society of America. She gardens in the Piney Woods of East Texas and is a member of the Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX.