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Vanilla Research Project in the Amazon

Andes to Amazon Biodiversity Program Works to Research, Explore, and Conserve the Peruvian Rainforest

The flower of Vanilla pompona Photo ©2007 BRIT

The heady flavor of the vanilla orchid (Vanilla spp., Orchidaceae) has been prized for centuries. Vanilla orchids were first cultivated by Totonac farmers in what is now Veracruz, Mexico, where they were used to flavor chocolate. Their fruits were important in the commerce of the Maya, Aztecs, and Incas, and they are still important in modern commerce today. The two common commercially-grown species are Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla tahitensis. Extracts and phytochemicals derived from the fruits of these species, including the compound vanillin, are important ingredients in the food, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and fragrance industries. Vanilla fruits contain about 3% vanillin, but at least 35 additional phytochemicals contribute to the famous vanilla fragrance and flavor.1 For this reason, natural vanilla extracts are still preferred over artificial flavoring made from wood pulp or chemical precursors. Mexico once had a monopoly on the world’s vanilla supply, but today commercial vanilla is produced in Central America, Indonesia, Madagascar, the Comoros, and Uganda.1 The annual harvest of vanilla fruits or “beans” ranges in the thousands of tons.1 However, the commercial vanilla species have a narrow genetic base and are susceptible to pathogens. Hidden away in the Amazonian blackwater palm swamps of Southeastern Peru, wild vanilla orchids may hold the key to the preservation of their cultivated cousins, as well as the threatened palm swamps.

In 2002 Dr. John Janovec and Amanda Neill, co-directors of the Andes to Amazon Biodiversity Program (AABP) at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT), made an interesting discovery in the blackwater palm swamps, known as aguajales, of Southeastern Peru. Wild vanilla orchids were climbing the trunks of the aguaje palm trees (Mauritia spp. Arecaceae) that give the swamps their name. Dr. Janovec describes vanilla’s abundance in the palm swamps as being “like weeds.” The AABP team quickly became interested in the potential of the vanilla orchids as non-timber forest products. Could these wild vanilla fruits be produced and harvested in the natural setting of these palm swamp forests of Madre de Dios, Peru? The first step in answering this question was to document the diversity, distribution, and natural history of the vanilla orchids in these swamps. Therefore, Texas Christian University graduate student Ethan Householder was recruited to lead the field work necessary for a better understanding of these wild vanilla species.

The AABP is a 4-year-old program that is part of BRIT’s research department. BRIT’s mission is “…to conserve our natural heritage by deepening our knowledge of the plant world and achieving public understanding of the value plants bring to life.” This BRIT research program is located in Fort Worth, Texas, and in Peru (BRIT-Peru). AABP’s goal is to use science, education, and technology to directly support the conservation of the threatened wetlands, rainforests, and cloud forests of Southeastern Peru. Householder’s research, documenting the natural history of wild Amazonian vanilla, is in alignment with this goal. In collaboration with local field assistants in Peru, Householder has conducted research incorporating GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping, pollination experiments, and examination of factors that affect fruit quality and plant ecology. The AABP team has established a permanent monitoring station in the Los Amigos Conservation Area in Madre De Dios, Peru, near the town of Puerto Maldonado. AABP workers have conducted bimonthly phenological monitoring of selected plants and have monitored the natural regeneration of vanilla orchids and aguaje palm trees along several kilometers of permanent trails and within plots nested along the trails. This research comprises the essential first steps in developing aguajal vanilla orchids as viable economic plants.

TCU-BRIT graduate student Ethan Householder spent a year inthe palm swamps of Southeastern Peru studying vanilla orchids. Photo ©2008 BRIT

The AABP team has found four species of wild vanilla in Madre de Dios, Peru. The most commercially viable species is Vanilla pompona ssp. grandiflora, a vine that climbs its host plant using aerial roots. It is a fast-growing orchid with elegant yellow flowers and an alluring scent. An individual plant can grow at a rate of one meter per month to a mature height of 30 meters. This epiphytic orchid primarily reproduces through clonal reproduction, when an individual is cut or broken, producing two or more new individuals. The flowers are pollinated by male euglossine bees that are attracted to the scent of the flowers, which mimic the scent of bee pheromones.

Hand-pollination of the wild vanilla orchids ensures a consistent crop of vanilla beans. The AABP team has hand-pollinated over 500 wild vanilla orchids and cured the resulting vanilla beans. Curing the vanilla beans is an essential process that increases levels of vanillin and the other phytochemicals that contribute to the characteristic vanilla flavor and scent. Householder believes that the laboriousness of hand-pollination, coupled with the high market value of vanilla beans and extracts, could lead to an alternative source of income for local Peruvians. Currently, many Peruvian families are forced to rely on destructive gold-mining and tree-cutting for their main source of income. Cultivating vanilla orchids would provide an incentive to protect the threatened aguajales, essential components of the Amazonian ecosystem. In addition, this research helps to support the conservation plan for the Los Amigos Conservation Area, a private conservation concession run by the Amazonian Conservation Association (ACA) and its sister organization in Peru, the Asociación para la Conservación de la Cuenca Amazónica (ACCA).

The vanilla project is just one example of how the BRIT team is working to document and conserve the species and ecosystems of Southeastern Peru. Other graduate student research projects include a taxonomic study of Peruvian nutmeg species (Virola spp., Myristicaceae) by Tiana Franklin, a study of Peruvian and Brazilian aroids by Jorge Lingan, a taxonomic study of Peruvian soapberry trees by Andrew Waltke, a study of mushroom and fungus-insect interactions by Romina Gazis, and an innovative study of tapir movements using global positioning system (GPS) collars by Mathias Tobler. In addition, the BRIT team and local community members are propagating and cultivating native plants of Southeastern Peru in nursery and greenhouse settings. Amanda Neill, an expert in horticulture, believes that many of these plants could be sold in the South American and North American garden markets. In addition, the greenhouses are an important educational tool. BRIT is also home to the cutting-edge virtual herbarium and biodiversity information system Atrium® ( This online herbarium showcases botanical collections made by AABP collaborators, including collections of vanilla species from the Los Amigos Conservation Area. Features include instant printable color field guides, high-resolution zoomable field and herbarium images, collection information, collection mapping using geospatial data that connects to the botanical dataset (maps are created by using Google Earth™ and Google Maps), climate data, and taxonomic information including determinations from experts and a new checklist component. Botanists and other plant lovers are encouraged to explore Atrium, which is both a research and educational tool. Using the data in Atrium, AABP is developing traditional print publications, including field guides, floras, and checklists to the orchids, mosses, and wetlands of the Los Amigos Conservation Area. Online e-floras and e-books will be added in the near future. The ultimate goal is to eventually showcase all of the botanical collections at BRIT in Atrium, including the type collections, the Heber W. Youngken, Sr. medicinal plant collection, and plant specimens from all over the world. These collections would then be available for scientists and students to study anywhere there is an Internet connection.

BRIT-Peru team hand-pollinating Vanilla pompona. Photo ©2008 BRIT

For more information, please visit the BRIT Web site at and the AABP Web site at or e-mail To explore AABP’s digital herbarium Atrium, go to

Marissa Oppel is the coordinator of the science learning laboratories of the biology department at El Centro College in Dallas, Texas, and she writes for the American Botanical Council’s HerbClip Service. She has an MS in pharmacognosy from the University of Illinois at Chicago and she is the creator of the Texas Herbal Web site (, which sells vintage clothing, books, and herbarium mounting weights online. She can be contacted at


1.Van Eryk BD. Food plants of the world: an illustrated guide. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, Inc.; 2005.