Only two species of plants provide the world's commercial supply of vanilla. One is Vanilla planifolia, which is the most common, and the other is Vanilla tahitensis, also known as Tahiti vanilla. Tahiti vanilla has a distinctive taste and is only found in two areas of the Pacific, so it is more expensive than Vanilla planifolia.
Vanilla originally came from America and then was commercially grown in many areas around the world after the continent was rediscovered by Europeans. In America, the beans were used as an ingredient in cacao drinks. The only other vanilla commercially sold, Vanilla planifolia, includes the types known as Mexican vanilla and Bourbon vanilla. Tahitian vanilla does not have any major subgroups.
The popular food flavoring vanilla comes from the beans of the vanilla plant. The plant is a vine that wraps itself around a tree for stability. Tahitian vanilla beans are darker in color and contain more oils than Vanilla planifolia. The beans are also not as long and thin as Vanilla planifolia beans.
The beans contain fewer seeds and do not have a thick skin like V. planifolia. The Tahitian beans have a flowery and fruit-like scent and their own particular flavor. They can smell like licorice, have a wine-like aroma, or a fruity smell like cherries.
Tahiti vanilla does not grow naturally in the wild but is restricted to commercial plantations and feral growth in French Polynesia and Papua New Guinea. Vanilla is a member of the orchid family of plants. Vanilla plants are usually farmed using artificial pollination and propagation. This is because a certain type of hummingbird and species of bee are necessary to pollinate the plants naturally, and these species live only in specific areas of the American continent.
Each vanilla flower grown outside of the vanilla's native area needs to be pollinated by hand. As such, vanilla production requires a lot of manpower, which is cheaper in certain countries. The beans are picked when they are green and then cured and dried. This can take up to six months.
Vanilla tahitensis supplies only about five percent of commercial vanilla worldwide. According to a 2008 genetic study of Tahiti vanilla by University of California researchers, the plant appears to be a hybrid of Vanilla planifolia and another noncommercial vanilla species called Vanilla odorata. The species is more expensive than the more common Vanilla planifolia beans.