The vine growing on the tree is vanilla, which is in fact an orchid species. The English word vanilla derives from the Spanish term “vainilla” or “little pod.” Seedpods or “vanilla beans” are produced by a vanilla flower after it is pollinated. They are then harvested, dried, and processed to make vanilla extract. Vanilla is native to Mexico, where it is only pollinated by a specific kind of bee. This bee cannot be found anywhere else in the world, and for this reason, Mexico was the only producer of vanilla extract for over three centuries. It was in 1841 that it was discovered that the plant could be efficiently pollinated by hand, which suddenly allowed vanilla to be grown in other countries.
Today, vanilla is grown throughout the tropics by means of artificial pollination. Madagascar is the world’s largest producer, responsible for 60% of vanilla bean production. The plants normally bloom every spring, but without pollination the flower wilts and no vanilla bean can grow. And each flower must be hand-pollinated within 12 hours of opening. For this very reason, vanilla has been and continues to be one of the most expensive spices on the market.