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.
Good question. I live in Pa and sowed seeds of anise and caraway this summer. Hoping they will re emerge this summer and produce seeds. I also grow orchids, but not vanilla. I would suggest contacting someone from the Phipps Conservatory (they are having an orchid exhibit in January), Morris Arboretum or Longwood Gardens. Someone should be able to direct you to a specialist grower. Good luck!
Thank you, Lisa from PA, I did contact the institutions you mentioned as well as Chicago Botanic, Brooklyn Botanic, Missouri Botanic and as far as Kew. I thought that Kew would have something, because they once had control over India, but they could not help me nor knew of any book on the subject. To clarify my question further, I was looking for information about growing tropical herbs and spices in the Northern USA. They did have some information on growing herbs and spices in the most southern regions of the US as well as growing seasonal herbs outside in our temperate climate gardens for the summer, but this doesn’t help me with plants like Nutmeg, Turmeric, Cinnamon or Ginger. Oh well, I’ll keep looking. Sam Webb
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Good luck Sam. I did check with http://www.bookfinder.com for a book growing tropicals in northern climes, but just found the same as you, growing them in southern areas. Maybe a book on greenhouse gardening would have the info you need.
Thanks Lisa, I’ll let you know if I find any book on the subject. Though, it was great to have a dialogue going for a while. You should know, in asking this question many times over, I have developed friendships with the local Asian community and they all tell me that growing tropical spices in the Northern climates produces a weak tasting spice and/or herb and they don’t bother. That it is better to buy the herb or spice, if you’re going to use it for anything. I always reply to that statement that I’m all about growing for growing’s sake and that’s what most gardeners do most of the time, anyway. Sam Webb
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As each month arrives, I try to collect a sample plant of the ‘Herb of the Month’ and learn about it, first hand. I have acquired a vanilla orchid and have it growing – yes growing – with my other orchids in the basement of my home in Pennsylvania. Question: Is there a hard copy book that tells how or even gives a gardener information about growing tropical herbs and spices in the Northeastern USA? I haven’t found any, as of yet, only internet YouTube videos from individuals who live in the southern states and that’s not quite what I’m looking for. Any takers? Sam Webb
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