In the 18th and 19th centuries, vanilla from Mexico was all the rage. Planters tried to get the plant to grow in other parts of the world, but while the vine grew, it would not pollinate and produce vanilla beans. Growers couldn’t even find the sexual parts of the plant, which would enable them to hand-pollinate it.
They kept trying. One plantation owner, Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont, on the island of Réunion halfway between India and Africa, had received a bunch of vanilla plants from the government in Paris. He’d planted them, and one, only one, held on for 22 years. It never fruited.
The story goes that one morning in 1841, Bellier-Beaumont was walking with his young African slave Edmond when they came up to a surviving vine. Edmond pointed to a part of the plant, and there, in plain view, were two packs of vanilla beans hanging from the vine. Two! That was startling. But then Edmond dropped a little bomb: This wasn’t an accident. He’d produced those fruits himself, he said, by hand-pollination.
The 12-year-old’s technique worked, and he taught it to other slaves of Réunion. Exports of vanilla exploded. What’s most amazing about the story is that Edmond received credit for the discovery, although his story had its ups and downs. Read about the discovery of vanilla pollination and find out what happened to Edmond at National Geographic’s Phenomena blog.
(Image credit: Robert Krulwich)