Vanilla is the only edible fruit of the orchid family, the largest family of flowering plants in the world. It’s a tropical orchid, and there are more than 150 varieties of vanilla, though only two types – Bourbon and Tahitian — are used commercially.
Vanilla grows within the 20-degree band either side of the Equator and is native to the Americas. The vanilla you know best, Vanilla planifolia (also known as fragrans), traditionally grew wild on the Atlantic Gulf side of Mexico from Tampico around to the northeast tip of South America, and from Colima, Mexico to Ecuador on the Pacific side. It also grew throughout the Caribbean.
The Olmeca people on the Gulf Coast of Mexico were perhaps the first to use vanilla as a flavoring in beverages. Before that, vanilla was used as a fragrance in temples and the flowers were placed inside of amulets to protect the wearer from the evil eye.