Vanilla's appeal is rooted in the ancient empires of meso-America, where it has grown natively since the time of the Maya. Derived from the dried pods of tropical climbing orchids found in the forests of Mexico, Central America, and northern South America, Vanilla is believed to have provided its first gustatory influence alongside several other spices in a Mayan cacao beverage. The Totonac people of modern-day Veracruz, Mexico were the first people believed to have cultivated Vanilla, with the Aztecs acquiring the spice after conquering the Totonacs in the 15th century. Like their predecessors, the Aztecs were said to have incorporated vanilla's flavor in the historical precursor to hot chocolate, known at the time as xocolatl.
After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire in the 16th century (around which time the name 'Vanilla' appeared from the Spanish word vaina, meaning 'sheath' or 'pod') Vanilla made its way to Europe. There it enjoyed great popularity as a flavor in its own right – it is said that Queen Elizabeth I had a taste for vanilla-flavored desserts – and attempts were made to cultivate the plant in the botanical gardens of England and France. These attempts were unsuccessful though, due to the absence of the plants' natural pollinators, a fact that was not discovered – much to the chagrin of the Europeans – until 1836.
Shortly after this discovery, in 1841 an enslaved boy by the name of Edmond Albius, who lived on the French island of Réunion (once known as the Île Bourbon), developed a revolutionary method of hand-pollination for Vanilla plants. This technique quickly spread to Madagascar and other surrounding islands, eventually making its way back to Mexico – where cultivation was cantered at the time – and is still in use today, with almost all commercially produced Vanilla being pollinated by hand. With the advent of Albius' method in combination with colonization and globalization, the cultivation of Vanilla began to proliferate, and the spice found its way into a variety of food and beverages, confections, medicines, and perfumes.
While Vanilla beans are sourced from all over the world today, production is now cantered in Madagascar, which supplies up to 70% of the world's Vanilla. In addition to Madagascar's specialty, Bourbon Vanilla, which has a sweet, rum-like profile, some popular commercial varieties also include Tahitian Vanilla, which is known for its fresh floral notes, Indonesian Vanilla, which has a smoky profile, and the classic Mexican Vanilla, which is known for its spicy and woody notes.
Due to the labour-intensive cultivation process, Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world, after Saffron. As a result of the high production cost, supply has not always been able to keep pace with demand. Thus, many of the Vanilla essences used for fragrance and flavour applications are synthetic. It was estimated in 2017 that less than 1% of the total global market in Vanilla flavour was sourced from Vanilla beans, although Vanilla flavour appeared in roughly 18,000 products.