Botanical Illustration of Vanilla planifolia

Tiny Scabbard

By Farfalle | The Noodle | 19 Dec 2020

My aunt is very into orchids. And, it may have rubbed off on me. It fit nicely into my nerdy-ness and collecting spirit. In the beginning I bought everything I came across. They're not expensive if they haven't flowered yet. I was growing hybrids and species from all over the world. Not well of course! only a few from those days have survived. One that stuck with me is a Vanilla planifolia. It has led to a great and also very petty mystery in my life. What happened to the vanilla flower?

Image search results of vanilla flower

Here is the search results from, today, for the phrase "vanilla flower." Of the 22 images here, 7 are actually vanilla flowers (though everyone gets the beans right.) Can you tell which ones? That percentage stays relatively consistent as I scroll down. I don't mean to criticize google here because if you go into your local grocery, the odds of seeing the correct flower are much lower. But first! A primer on Vanilla.

Vanilla, what is it?

Vanilla is a genus of orchids with a vine growing habit. Most of the vanilla we eat comes from the seed pod of the species planifolia, which originates in Mexico. It stayed mostly local until the conquistadors arrived, and brought it to Europe. The conquistadors deserve flak for a lot of murder with the caveat that slaughter has been a consistent attachment to the plant well before their arrival and continues today. Why? Because it takes years to get a fruiting plant, must be hand pollinated, only flowers once a year, only flowers for a very brief period, takes 9 months to ripen, and takes several more months to 'cure.' Add to that the incredible global demand and that's a recipe for... well a lot of death. Maybe that's not the best placement of a pun.

The conquistadors named it vainilla, meaning tiny scabbard, because of the pod's shape. There's some Freudian fun in that one. Flowers being the sex organ... you get it.

Back to my curiosity!

As I mentioned, everyone gets the bean right. This is consistent for as long as I can trace. Below is an ad from 1921. They equate the bean with a walking cane due to its shape. There, on the illustrated bottle, is the vanilla bean, accurately rendered. Oddly, I could not find flowers on old ads. I can only speculate why. It appears ads were more literally targeted. Ads of the 20s-60s included lots of baked goods and pictures of kids with sweets and ice-cream. That's what vanilla was used for. Why else would you buy it? 

Vanilla ad from 1921

Now in comparison, the flower is the central element, vanilla's identity. Here's a contemporary ad for comparison. Those flowers are fake, but they aren't fake vanilla flowers. I get the feeling vanilla flavor and scent is sold as refined, pure, delicate, fancy, like a beautiful white flower. The green trumpet shape of the real flower just wouldn't sell those feelings.

Absolute vanilla ad 

I fruitlessly attempted to find a bridge between the two advertising strategies. That's a better place for a pun! Anyway, I failed. I still believe in my missing link, but I could find no evidence. Maybe the ad man who decided flowers were going to sell vanilla also decided it didn't matter which flower it was. But there's more. If you go back to the google search 16 of those flowers are orchids. In my local CVS nearly all the flowers are orchids. What a coincidence?

Products with wrong flower

If you're curious, Cymbidiums (Bigelow vanilla chai and Coffee mate) and Phalaenopsis (Gold Emblem extract) get used the most as proxy flowers, and their both orchids.. Somehow, everybody knows what a vanilla bean looks like. Most ads seem to know that an orchid is correct. They just pick an Asian genus instead. The plot is thick, vanilla pudding thick.

If you want to know more about the history of vanilla, there are some well researched books like Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance, by Patricia Rain. I want to know more about this identity crisis. (I think it is a crisis. The plant probably does not care.) How did this happen? How does botanical representation effect us? What does it mean for a culture to overwrite a plant? Should this be a standard in truth-in-advertising? Do you know a product designer who will talk to me?

I think it does matter that we retain some real connection to our food. Where that line gets drawn changes how we relate to the earth. The vanilla flower is pretty, but it's not winning any pageants. That needs to be ok. Reality is often dirty, and ugly, and weird, and deceitful, and we can celebrate that without imitating it. For every thousand shoppers buying creamer, there is a nerd like me, asking WTF. In any case, you can't un-see it now suckers.

Product photos are my own, advertisement images are from Ebay and Absolute Vodka respectively. The botanical illustration is from Kew Garden's archive.

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The Noodle
The Noodle

The noodle aims to delight and inform and confound. When successful, all 3 may be accomplished simultaneously. Let's be honest though. I've no idea what I'm doing. Cheers.

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