DID YOU KNOW that the vanilla flavour in ice cream, cakes and confectionaries, and a wide
variety of other food comes from orchids? Yes, the popular flavouring essence is extracted
from the Vanilla orchid ... not the flowers though but from the seed pods or beans.
This flavouring essence has been around for much longer than we imagine. The people of
the ancient Aztec civilisation used it in their favourite drink, a chocolate beverage,
centuries before Columbus set foot on the New World.
It is said that the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, who overthrew the Aztec empire and
won Mexico for the King of Spain, drank this beverage in the court of Montezuma and immediately
About 65 species of Vanilla orchids are found throughout the tropics, and Sabah
has three or four indigenous species* but they are not cultivated for vanilla extraction.
The two major species grown commercially are Vanilla fragrans (also known as
Vanilla planifolia), which is grown on a large scale in Mexico and Africa, and
Vanilla tahitensis, which is native to Oceania.
The seed pods, or vanilla beans, are harvested to be processed just before they ripen, after
they have attained a full length of about 20 centimetres.
The beans are fermented, cured and dried, a process that takes up to five months. Vanillin,
the substance that eventually goes to make vanilla flavouring, is extracted from the crushed
The Tenom Orchid Centre in Sabah is cultivating,
on an experimental basis, several plants of Vanilla fragrans brought in from Africa.
Mr C. L. Chan says there are no plans yet to grow Vanilla on a commercial scale in
Sabah. But if the species can thrive under local condi- tions, then further experiments will be
carried out to determine if it can produce good quaity vanilla extract on a commercial scale.
The plants at the orchid centre appear to be doing quite well though, and have flowered
and produced seed pods.
Well, who knows? Perhaps, this species will prove to be viable in our climate. Perhaps, the
scientists at the orchid centre will one day produce a hybrid or clone suitable for cultivation
on Sabah soil.
When that happens, it will add a new flavour to the work being carried out at the Tenom
(* One reference says Peninsular Malaysia has five native
Vanilla species, among them V. griffithii and V. pilifera. Some of
these peninsular species may also be found in Sabah.)