Friday, April 14, 2017

A slave boy, a stingless bee and how they changed a spice trade

One evening in 1841, at the French controlled Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean, Férreol Bellier-Beaumont was strolling around his plantation with his young slave boy when he noticed something unusual.

It was 2 Vanilla pods dangling from a pole.....

Having grown Vanilla planifolia for 20 years without producing a single pod, this event was met with a sense of excitement for Monsieur Beaumont. However, he  paid scant notice of his slave boy, known simply as Edmond (for he has no family name) claiming credit for the deed.

A few days later, Monsieur Beaumont saw another flower …. and he was all attentive as the dark boy demonstrated how he managed to manually pollinate it by pulling down the lip of a flower and with other hand coercing the union of the stigma and anthers.

Much to his surprise, Monsieur Beaumont had another pod after this event.

Drawing of Vanilla planifolia painted by F.E. Köhler (1883-1914)

This realisation shook the establishment. Some aristocrats promptly removed all types of flowers, the gaudy sex organs, from their hats - but Monsieur Beaumont and his peers responded by feverishly impregnating them. Edmond's useful little botany lesson just jump-started the Vanilla industry in the sleepy ex-French colony.

And soon the Mexicans, who for decades held a fragile monopoly of these pods growing in their backyard, thanks to the industry of a small stingless bee from genus Melipona, suddenly found their leading exporter status overtaken by the faraway growers at the Indian Ocean. They now produced less than one tenth the amount of either Madagascar and Indonesia, the 2 largest exporters. In recent years, this pod alone accounts for around 10% of Madagascar's GDP.

This is a fine example of "Creative destruction" long before this term was even coined.

And what became of Edmond, the little known slave boy, who knew nothing of Intellectual Property ?

Well, he died childless and poor.

Vanila pompoana is commercially used to flavour Cuban cigars.

Vanilla consists of 100 plus species of vining orchids distributed in tropical New world and Old but only three has been capitalised for spice. More than 90% of the pods traded belonged to that of Vanilla planifolia, with Vanilla pompoana and Vanilla tahitensis making up the rest. None of the Asian species are of commercial value. Today, Vanilla is treasured in everything from desserts, ice-creams, cocktails, Pepsi Cola and even Coke. It also imparts a characteristic base note to many famous perfumes - Chanel N0 5, Opium, Shalimar, Dune, Tresor and so on.
A few members of this genus in Africa and Asia are leafless, relying on the green stems for photosynthesis. Vanilla aphylla is one of them. It has no commercial value in the spice trade but is sometimes grown as a curio.

Vanilla siamensis vines dangle from forest trees in NW Thailand.

(1)Travels in search of the luscious substance, Tim Ecott.
(2)1762, On Experiences, Bezaar Zimmermann

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