Vanilla is a flavouring derived from orchids in the genus Vanilla. The name came from the Spanish word "vainilla", diminutive form of "vaina" (meaning "sheath"), which is in turn derived from Latin "vagina".
Vanilla is a vine: it grows by climbing over some existing tree, pole, or other support. It can be grown in a wood (on trees), in a plantation (on trees or poles), or in a "shader", in increasing orders of productivity. Left alone, it will grow as high as possible on the support, with few flowers. Every year, growers fold the higher parts of the plant downwards so that the plant stays at heights accessible by a standing human. This also greatly stimulates flowering.
The part of the plant in which the distinctive flavoured compounds are found is the fruit, resulting from the pollination of the flower. One flower produces one fruit. Vanilla planifolia flowers are hermaphrodite: they carry both male (anther) and female (stigma) organs; however, to avoid self-pollenization (which would tend to result in genetic deficiencies), a membrane separates those organs. Such flowers may only be naturally pollinated by a specifically equipped bee found in Mexico. Growers have tried to bring this bee into other growing locales, to no avail. The only way to produce fruits is thus artificial pollination. A simple and efficient artificial pollination method was introduced in 1841 by a 12 year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion, then a French colony, in the Indian Ocean. This method is still used today. Using a bevelled sliver of bamboo, an agricultural worker folds back the membrane separating the anther and the stigma, then presses the anther on the stigma. The flower is then self-pollinated, and will produce a fruit. The vanilla flower lasts about one day, sometimes less, thus growers have to inspect their plantations every day for open flowers, a labor-intensive task.The fruit (a seed pod), if left on the plant, will ripen and open at the end; it will then exhaust the distinctive vanilla smell. The fruit contains tiny black seeds, which, in ripe fruits, carry the vanilla flavour. These black seeds are the tiny black specks found in dishes prepared with whole natural vanilla. Vanilla planifolia seeds will not germinate in normal soil; they need a certain symbiotic mushroom. Growers reproduce the plant by cutting: they cut sections of the vine with six or more leaf nodes, which have a root opposite each leaf. The lower two leaves are removed and this portion is covered in loose soil at the base of the support tree or post. The remaining upper roots will cling to the support and often will eventually also grow down into the soil. Growth is rapid under good conditions.