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Title: Vanilla
Original Title: Vanille
Volume and Page: Vol. 16 (1765), pp. 830–833
Author: Louis, chevalier de Jaucourt (biography)
Translator: Robert H. Ketchum [Northeastern University (Emeritus),]
Subject terms:
Exotic botany
Original Version (ARTFL): Link

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Citation (MLA): Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. "Vanilla." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Robert H. Ketchum. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2007. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Vanille," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 16. Paris, 1765.
Citation (Chicago): Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. "Vanilla." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Robert H. Ketchum. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2007. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Vanille," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 16:830–833 (Paris, 1765).

Vanilla. An American pod that gives strength, smell, and taste to chocolate, the drink which delights the Spaniards and which they love no less than they do laziness. Whatever they have extracted from this fruit for nearly two centuries and from the countries they have so cruelly ravaged, they do not know any better than we the varieties, the cultivation, the breeding, and the properties of vanilla. We owe them nothing for the little bit of knowledge we have of the plant. For all the rest that there is to know, they have kept from us.

Vanilla is one of those drugs that is used extensively, but about which little is known. It is clear that it is a pod that encloses a plant seed from which comes the Spanish term vaynilla which means little pod. However, neither the number of varieties nor the best kinds of this type of plant, nor the best soil for their cultivation, nor the method of growing, nor the way in which they reproduce is known. In all these respects, there is a lack of reliable detail. The learned scientists who have been to Peru have failed to provide this missing information on the plant.

Only the native Americans have vanilla . They sell it to the Spaniards carefully conserving this treasure, one of the few that remains to them, apparently because their masters did not know how to take it from them. It is said that they take an oath among themselves to never reveal anything to the Spaniards, even the very least of their secrets. This is an unspoken practice for which they clearly have good reasons and one for which they have undergone the cruelest torments rather than break.

For their part, the Spaniards, satisfied with the riches they have taken from them, and more accustomed to a happy ignorance and lazy life, have scorned the lure of natural history and those who have succumbed to it. In a word, with the sole exception of the Spaniards Hernandez and Father Ignatius, it is to the travelers, the merchants, and to the consuls in Cadiz to whom we owe the small number of details we have of this precious drug that provide the structure for this article.

Names and descriptions of vanilla. The Indians call it mécasubil , and our botanists call it vanilla, vaniglia, vayniglia, vanillias, piperis arbori jamaicensis innascens , Pluk. almaq. 301

It is a little, almost round pod, slightly flattened, about six inches long, 0.33 inches wide, wrinkled, reddish, softish, oily, and fat, yet brittle and tough on the outside. The pulp which is inside is reddish and filled with an infinite number of tiny, black shiny seeds. The pulp is slightly bitter, fat, aromatic and with a odor like that of Peruvian balm. Vanilla is imported from Peru and Mexico, the two hottest countries in the Americas. But most importantly from New Spain. It is found in the mountains accessible only to the Indians in those places that enjoy a degree of humidity.

Varieties of Vanilla. There are three types of vanilla; the first is called pompona or bova by the Spaniards, that is swollen or puffed up. The second is leq , that is the “merchant” or marketable type. The third is simarona or bastard. The pods of the pompona are large and short. Those of the leq vanilla are longer and more supple. Those of the simarona are the smallest in every respect.

Only the leq vanilla is good. It must be of a deep brownish red, not too black, not too russet, not too sticky, and not too dried out. The pods must be somewhat wrinkled and appear to be filled. A package of fifty should weigh more than five ounces. Those that weigh eight are the sobrebuenas , the excellent. Their odor must be penetrating and pleasant when a fresh, well seasoned pod is opened. The pods will be filled with a black, oily, balsamic liquid, swimming with a infinite number of small seeds, virtually imperceptible. There will be a strong, sleep-inducing odor that provokes a kind of intoxication. The pompona has the strongest and less pleasing odor. It can cause headaches, dizziness, and shortness of breath. The juice of the pompona is more fluid and its seeds are larger, more like those of the mustard plant. The simarona has a weaker odor, less fluid, and fewer seeds.

The pompona is not marketed; nor is the simarona , unless the Indians succeed in adroitly slipping some pods in among the leq vanilla. There is some question whether the three types of vanilla in question are three species or just one that varies according to the soil, the means of cultivation, or the season in which it is harvested.

In the whole of New Spain, vanilla is not added to chocolate. For them, it would make it unwholesome, even unbearable. Yet when transported to Europe it is not the same thing. To those among us who are curious, they have sent samples of a Caracas and Maricaibo vanilla, cities in South America. This type is shorter than the leq vanilla, not as big as the pompona and appears to be of good quality. Apparently it is different variety. A Peruvian vanilla is also spoken of, the dried pods of which are wider than two inches and longer than a foot. However, its odor is not nearly as strong as the others and it cannot be preserved.

When the vanilla pods are ripe, the Mexicans harvest them, tie them by their ends, and place them in the shade to dry. When they are dried and ready to be preserved, they lubricate their outsides with a little oil to make them supple. This helps to preserve them and to prevent them from drying too much so as to reduce the risk of breaking. They are then combined in packages of fifty, one hundred, and one hundred and fifty to be sent to us.

The price and choice of vanilla. The packets of vanilla containing fifty pods are sold in Amsterdam from 10 to 20 florins, that is from 20 to 42 French pounds in our money based on the scarcity, type, or quality. A one percent deduction is allowed for prompt payment. The choicest vanilla is that which is the best nourished, largest, newest, most odorific, slightly soft, and neither too wrinkled nor too oily outside. It is not necessary for them to have been put in a humid place, for then they would have a tendency to rot or they would be so already. They must not only be free of rot, but have a pleasant odor and also be fat and supple. It is also necessary to make sure they are of the same size, since the center of these packets is often filled only with small, dry and odorless vanilla pods, inside of which are extremely small seeds that are black and shiny. Not to be thrown away are the vanilla pods that are covered with a powdery salt or with very fine points of salt, in appearance just like the flowers of the benjoin. This flower is nothing other than an essential salt, which this fruit is filled with and which escapes when put in a place where the temperature is too hot.

When the vanilla pod is allowed to ripen for too long a time on the plant, it bursts and exudes a small quantity of distilled, black, odorous, balsamic fluid that condenses into a balm. It is carefully gathered in small ceramic containers placed underneath the pods. This balm is unknown in Europe either because it cannot be preserved in transport or because the natives keep it for themselves or because the Spaniards prevent its export.

Counterfeiting vanilla. When the flow of balsamic liquid is exhausted, there are Mexicans, aware of the premium placed on vanilla in Europe, who after having cut these kinds of pods, take pains to fill them with small flakes and other foreign bodies, then seal the openings with a little glue or sew them up adroitly. Then they dry them and mix them in with the good vanilla . The pods falsified in this manner, possess neither quality or worth and it has happened that from time to time we have encountered them among the good pods.

Botanical names of the vanilla plant. This plant has the following names in the botanical books:

Volubilis, siliquosa, mexicana, foliis plantaginis , Raii, hist. 1330.

Aracus aromaticus ... Tlixochitl, seu flos niger, mexicanis dictus , Hermand 38.

Lathyrus mexicanus, siliquis longissimis, moschatis, nigris , Ammon. char. plant. 436.

Lobus oblongus, aromaticus . Cat. jam. 70.

Lobus aromaticus, subfuscus, terebenthi corniculis similis . C. B. P. 404.

Lobus oblongus, aromaticus, odore ferè belzuini , J. B. I. 428.

Descriptions of this plant. As yet we do not have an exact description of the Mexican variety or species of vanilla.

Some texts group it among the ivies. According to these, the stem is 0.25 or 0.33 inches in diameter and is not exactly round. It is somewhat hard yet nevertheless still vinous and pliable. The bark, which covers it, is thin and strongly adherent and very green. The stem is divided by knots six or seven inches apart. It is from these knots that spring the leaves, always paired. They closely resemble those of the laurel, but they are considerably longer, wider, thicker, and fleshier. Their average length is five or six inches and their width is two and a half inches. They are strong and supple like leather and are an attractive shiny green in color with a bright finish on top and slightly paler appearance underneath.

Hernandez, whose evidence appears to have great weight, claims that this plant is a kind of bindweed which climbs along trees, embracing them. He says its leaves are 11 inches long and wide have the same shape as those of the plantain, but bigger and longer and of a deeper green. They grow out alternately from each side the vine. The flowers of this plant are blackish.

Several other botanists maintain that the vanilla plant resembles a vine more than anything else. At least this is what has been certified by Brother Ignatio of the Saint Theresa of Jesus Discalced Carmelites. He resided a long time in New Spain and arrived in Cadiz in 1721 on the way to Rome. This monk, being more enlightened and curious than his compatriots, and with the help of several Indian valets, brought back a large cutting, believed to be vanilla.

Since he had already some familiarity with the plant, he grafted his cutting to a large tree and interlaced in the branches of this tree all the sprouts or binding filaments of the cutting. He placed the lower end of the cutting four or five inches above the ground and covered it with a little packet of dry moss to protect from the atmosphere. Shortly the sap of the tree penetrated the cutting and caused it to green again. At the end of about two months five or six filaments pushed out through the packet of moss and sought the earth. These were roots that became as big at their largest as the quill of a feather. At the end of two years, the cutting produced flowers and then vanilla pods that ripened.

The leaves are a half a foot long, three fingers wide, obtuse, and rather dark green. The lower ones are simple, white with traces of red and yellow.

When the leaves fall, the little pods or vanillas begin to grow. At first they are green, and then when they are yellow, they are cut. The plant takes three to four years to produce fruit.

The shoots of the plant creep along the ground like vines, attaching themselves in the same way, and wrap themselves around any tree they encounter where they climb with their help. With time, the main stem becomes as hard as that of the vine. The roots extend themselves and implant themselves far into the earth. They grow offspring that are planted as cuttings at the base of a tree or other suitable place. This planting is done at the end of the winter and the beginning of spring.

Worthy of note, as has already been seen in the practice of Father Ignatio, is that the end of the cutting is not put in the ground, since it would rot. The plant receives enough nourishment from the tree to which it is attached and has no need of any sustenance provided by the soil. The sap of the trees in these hot latitudes of the Americas is so strong and abundant that a branch broken by the wind and thrown against a tree of a different species will stick there and begin to grow just as if it had been grafted through the skill of one of our gardeners. This is a common occurrence.

It is also common that the large trees that throw long filaments from their highest branches all the way to the ground, reproducing the plant by means of these new roots and in so doing create a little forest around themselves. In such instances, the first tree, the father and ancestor of all the rest, can no longer be identified. These types of repeated generations often make the woods impenetrable for hunters.

Description of the vanilla plant of Santo Domingo. Although the vanilla plant which grows on the island of Santo Domingo and found in R.P. Plumier’s Botanique M. S. C. d'Amérique is no different than that reported by Hernandez, the Frenchman’s description is notably better in its details than that of the Spaniard’s.

Plumier calls it the vanilla flore viridi & albo, fructu nigrescente , Plum. nov. plant. amer . 25. The roots of this plant are almost the size of the little finger and are about two feet long and embedded in the earth in all directions. The thin stalks are russet-colored, tender, and succulent. Like the clemantine, they climb very high into tall trees, sometimes rising above them. The stalk is as large as a finger, cylindrical, green, and is filled with a viscous fluid. It is also knotted and each of its knots gives birth to a leaf.

These leaves are soft, slightly bitter, and arranged alternately. In shape, they are pointed, in the form of a lance about nine or ten inches long, three inches wide, smooth, and light green. They have an indentation in the middle, which is arrayed with arc-shaped veins. When this plant is well advanced in age, there spring from the stem joints of the higher leaves long branches bearing leaves arranged alternately. These branches in turn give birth to other much smaller leaves.

From each point of the leaf junctions that are towards the extremities of the vine, there grows a little branch distinctively bent and at each bend is found a very pretty flower with petals arranged irregularly amid six leaves, five of which are similar and arranged almost in the shape of a rose. The leaves of this flower are oblong, narrow and twisted. They are white on the inside and green on the outside. The sixth leaf or nectarium which occupies the center is rolled in the manner of pitcher vase and is carried on a fleshy embryon, slightly twisted, similar to a trumpet. The other leaves of the flower are also attached to the same embryon which is long, green, cylindrical, and fleshy. It develops into a fruit or a kind of little soft fleshy horn almost the size of the little finger. It is about a half a foot long and blackish when ripe. At this stage, it is filled with an infinite number of tiny black seeds. The flower and the fruits of this plant are without odor.

This plant is found in several places on the island of Santo Domingo. It flowers in the month of May. This vanilla plant of Santo Domingo appears to differ from that in Mexico described by Father Hernandez only by the color of its flowers and by the odor of its pods. For the flower of the Santo Domingo plant is white and slightly green and has an odorless pod, while that of the Mexican plant according to the description provided by Hernandez is black with a pod having a pleasant odor.

Description of the vanilla plant of Martinique. P. Labat assures us that in his voyages to America he found in Martinique another species of vanilla, which he describes as follows. The flower it produces is almost yellow and is divided into five leaves, longer than wide, wavy, and slightly indented in the middle. In the center grows a little round pistil, slightly pointed, which elongates and changes into fruit. This flower is about the same size and consistency as that of a pea. The bloom lasts no longer than five or six days after which it fades, dries, falls, and leaves the pistil nude. Then little by little it becomes a pod of five, six, or seven inches long, more flat than round, about 0.42 inches wide and 0.17 inches thick shaped somewhat like our bean pods.

This pod begins as a lovely green, which yellows as it ripens, finally becoming completely grown when it is dry. The inside is filled with tiny round seeds, almost imperceptible and impalpable. These are red before they ripen and all black when they are mature. Before then they have no strong odor whatsoever unlike that of the green. But when they are ripe and rubbed between the hands they give off a slight aromatic odor that it highly pleasant.

This same information was provided to the Academy of Sciences in 1724 by one of the correspondents of the academy living in Martinique who added that he had three pies that came from a cutting he had brought from New Spain, and that these had grown with perfect success.

The places where the good vanilla grows. In spite of these kinds of allegations, the vanilla of Martinique has in no way won favor of place or in trade. The preferred sources still continue to be New Spain and Peru.

The places where vanilla is found in the largest amounts are the coast of Caracas and Cartegena, the Isthmus of Darien, and the whole distance between this isthmus and the Gulf of Saint Michael up to Panama, the Yucatan, and Honduras. It is also found in some other places, but it is neither as good nor in as large quantity as in Mexico. It is said moreover that there exists a lot of high quality vanilla in the farmland of Cayenne. Since this plant loves cool and shady places, it is rarely found near rivers and in those places where the altitude and the thickness of the forest deprive it of the animating heat of the sun.

Its harvest, cultivation, and desirable properties. The harvest begins are the end of September. It is in full force by All Saints Day and lasts through the end of December. It is not known if the Indians cultivate this plant or, if they do, how it is done. However, it is believed that the entire ceremony they perform for the preparation of the fruit consists just in cutting it at the time and leaving it to dry for 15 to 20 days in order to get rid of the excess or, rather, dangerous moisture which would make it rot. As an aid to evaporation they even press the vanilla between their hands, flattening it gently, after which they rub coconut oil or calba into it and place it in packets covered with balisier or cachibou leaves.

The vanilla contains a characteristic liquid that is oily, resinous, subtle, and odorous. It can be extracted easily through the method used for getting the juice from grapes. After having extracted the tincture, the pod remains without odor or substance. A chemical analysis reveals a large quantity of essential, aromatic oil, a rather larger proportion of acidic liquor, plus a small amount of uric liquor and potassium carbonate.

Hernandez attributes admirable properties to this extract, but he is a bad judge. Nevertheless, the authors of medical literature have done little more than go along with his opinions. These gentlemen claim that it fortifies the stomach, aids the digestion, reduces intestinal gas, neutralizes stomach acids, and is useful for head colds and for cararrhs. They also add that it promotes menstruation, facilitates childbirth, and hastens recovery. All this is exaggeration. Through its aroma, heated Vanilla can aid digestion on those occasions where it is a matter of stimulating the weakened fibers of the stomach. For the same reason, it can occasionally serve as a stimulus to menstruation and appetite. Its subtle and odorous balsamic oil recommends it to nervous conditions such as hysteria and hypochondria. This is why some English physicians have adopted it overly hastily as a specific for illnesses of this type.

It is administered in quantities of up to 1/16th of an ounce mixed with wine or water, or some other suitable liquid up to 1/8th of an ounce. It should be noted that it overheats the body when taken in too large doses or when it is used without moderation. These considerations should serve to indicate when its use should be strictly avoided. French physicians use it rarely, leaving it in its pure state or, exceptionally, using it in chocolate, where it provides the principal enjoyment. It is occasionally used to flavor tobacco, but these flavors have gone out of fashion. These odors now furnish nothing but a feeling of faintness. I know of no other special treatise on vanilla.