Saturday, March 6, 2010
The world's most loved orchid
Not many people know that Vanilla is actually an orchid - in fact it's one of the oldest surviving "primitive" orchids, the origins of which date back- give or take- 120 million years.
This orchid can be found in many tropical regions of the world and this distribution supports the theory that genus Vanilla is very ancient and these orchids display a number of archaic features. The scientists established that origins of Vanilla orchid go back to the time when Gondwanaland broke up some 120 million years ago. They base their finding on the theory of plate tectonics and trace the origin of this orchid to the very beginning of the Cretaceous period, or 120 - 130 million year ago.
Difficult to imagine, I know, such a time-frame, and even more humbling to see the plant that kept all of it's genetic imprints intact through Earth's history and evolution and still contributing it's ancient, bold, uncompromising, unchanged energy to our modern times.
There are a number of species contained within this genus and they occur throughout the tropics. The most known are Vanilla planifolia that grows in Asia and Americas and Vanilla polylepis from Africa - in Angola, Zaire, Kenya. The plant mostly farmed for the vanilla essence that is made from seed pods and plants grow as vines that often reach more than 100ft long.
I always wanted to see this orchid growing in it's natural habitat and to experience myself it's special energy, to see how it's pollinated by native birds and see how it adapted to our "modern" culture and a couple of years ago had an opportunity to visit Lifou island in New Caledonia - one of the biggest Vanilla plantations in the Pacific.
Lifou island is part of the Loyalty islands - it's beautiful and pristine paradise with clear waters and streams and waterfalls, abundance of wildlife and magical tropical birds, unusual, ancient plants with huge Vanilla plantation where this orchid grows in it's natural habitat. Native people are very friendly and hospitable and very much tuned to nature, seasons, tides, healing plants and living in tune with all life around them. They plant and harvest and gather by Moon and by stars and I was fortunate to visit an elder of the village, who was a woman, so wise and so humble.
The Vanilla orchids grow through all the island - huge vines everywhere and I was taken through different stages of producing vanilla beans - from planting, to growing to maturing to harvesting and then drying. Few times a year huge ships come to the island to collect the beans and take them all over the world, to be used in so many different ways in our modern living.
So, here it is - a humble Vanilla orchid, as old as the "time" itself, being grown by Native people all over the world who respect it's origin and it's destiny and it's place in our everyday lives. If ever opportunity presents itself for you to visit Vanilla plantation anywhere in the world, be it Mexico or South America or Pacific or Africa - take the chance, you'll be amazed at the knowledge you will take with you.