Vanilla is a plant that belongs to the climbing orchid family. It grows almost exclusively in subtropical, humid climates and thrives only in good soil. It can grow to heights of up to 15 metres but is usually kept trimmed to about 1.75 metres for cultivation purposes. Its stem is fleshy, with a radius of 10-15mm, and the leaves are thick and flat with a glossy green colour.
The vanilla bean is actually a seed pod. Most of the fragrance residues are found in the seeds and oily liquid surrounding the seeds.
While there are more than 110 different varieties of vanilla plant, only three varieties are cultivated and used for the extraction of flavouring agents:
- Vanilla planifolia – principle bean grown all over the world. Major growth regions include Madagascar, Indonesia and Mexico
- Vanilla pompona – primarily used in fragrances in the pharmaceutical industry
- Vanilla tahitensis – Tahitian vanilla. Prior to 1990, this Tahitian bean was only grown in Tahiti but is now also found in Papua New Guinea