VANILLA – a Profile

  Vanilla, in all its forms, is an essential ingredient in skin care, perfumery, culinary, and emotional needs.
 Read Jeanne Rose’s profile of this essential plant.

Vanilla ~ The Favorite Flavor and Scent

By Jeanne Rose

photo of Vanilla vine at the Conservatory in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco with an overlay of two types of Vanilla in bottles.

Photo by Jeanne Rose at the Conservatory in Golden Gate Park

Other Common Name/Naming Information: The word vanilla comes from the Latin ‘vagina’ (sheath) or scissors case and refers to the shape of the pods, and ‘planifolia’ means flat leaves.

VANILLA FAMILY ~ Orchidaceae. Vanilla is the only species of Orchid that is extracted, distilled, or used in aromatherapy or foodstuff. There are some Orchid varieties that contain fixed oils.

VANILLA COUNTRIES OF ORIGINS ~ Vanilla is indigenous to Mexico and tropical America. It is now grown in many places, including Madagascar and the island of Réunion (western Indian Ocean about 420 miles (680 km)  east of Madagascar.

HARVEST LOCATION of Vanilla ~  Our Vanilla originates in Madagascar and Comores (between Madagascar and the southeast African mainland), India, and Uganda.

ENDANGERED OR NOT ~ Vanilla planifolia, the source of Vanilla essence, grows in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, in India in the Bay of Bengal, and classified as a vulnerable species, while Vanilla andamanica, a wild relative of commercial Vanilla, is considered endangered.

VANILLA. GENERAL DESCRIPTION OF PLANT HABITAT AND GROWTH ~ Perennial, herbaceous vine trained to grow in rows and reaches up to 75 feet. There is so much that is interesting about this plant, and I suggest that you go to a botanical site for a complete description. Start with the Wikipedia description of growth and habitat. [See Wikipedia for Vanilla]

           I suggest that you read one of the many wonderful books that have been written about the history and uses of Vanilla.  So much has been written and explored.  This is one of the most fascinating plants that I know.

A Vanilla flower and flower buds

Vanilla flower at the U.S. Botanic Garden

VANILLA. PORTION OF PLANT USED IN DISTILLATION, HOW DISTILLED, EXTRACTION METHODS  ~ Solvent extracted absolute. “The green fruit which looks like a green bean is picked after it spends some time on the vine and is then cured.”  This is another one of the plants that have no odor; the odor develops upon drying and curing (See also Orris and Patchouli).  These immature pods are then picked, put on trays, and left to ferment.  When they turn brown, they become extremely fragrant, this fermentation process allows the Vanilla to develop, and the best quality beans accumulate white Vanilla crystals on the bean375 Essential Oils and Hydrosols, p.154.

•Pure vanilla is made with the extract of beans from the vanilla plant. While the substance called Mexican vanilla is frequently made with the extract of beans from the Tonka tree, an entirely different plant that belongs to the pea family. Tonka bean extract contains coumarin.

•The only company I know of that actually grows/processes pure Vanilla beans from Mexico is Nielsen-Massey Mexican pure vanilla extract. I have it in my fridge. This is Nielsen-Massey, “Mexican Pure Vanilla Extract is made from premium, hand-selected beans cultivated in Mexico, the original birthplace of the vanilla plant. The proprietary cold extraction process gently draws out and preserves the vanilla’s more than 300 flavor compounds, resulting in one of the world’s most exceptional vanillas. A rich marriage of sweet and woody notes, the (true) Mexican vanilla flavor profile has a deep, creamy, spicy-sweet character, similar to clove or nutmeg. Mexican Pure Vanilla Extract’s unique flavor profile means it works especially well with chocolate, citrus fruits, cinnamon, cloves, and other warm spices. The vanilla’s spiciness complements Chilé peppers and tomatoes, smoothing out their heat and acidity.”3.

•Nielsen-Massey also processes Tahitian Vanilla, Vanilla x tahitensis, a species of Vanilla that is unique among the hand-grown varieties. It is a hybrid of two species, Vanilla planifolia, and Vanilla tahitensis, with a thinner stem, oval-shaped leaves, and darker green in color. 

•Vanilla comes from Mexico but is grown extensively in the Tropics, most noticeable in Madagascar. It is the only orchid being grown as a domestic plant. The long, slender fruits (‘beans’ or ‘pods’) are harvested before they ripen, but the powerful vanilla flavor only develops after several months of special curing. The beans are spread in the sun in the morning, then covered and kept enclosed during the night. After a while, the green beans turn brown, and the glycosidically bound vanillin is slowly liberated. It is understandable why vanilla is so expensive. The small, black ‘speckles’ in a dessert show that true vanilla has been used and are the seeds, which are unusually large for orchids. White fluffs on the surface of the vanilla pods are neither mold nor insecticide but pure crystallized vanillin and a sign of high quality.

vanilla flower and vanilla beans

(photo by Jeanne Rose of fresh Vanilla beans)


Vanilla Absolute has the best and strongest scent, and this dark brown viscous product makes an excellent addition to many perfumes. It is alcohol soluble, but portions of the absolute will settle out of the perfume, and the perfume will need to be filtered.

Vanilla CO2 This creamy substance extracted with carbon dioxide with a lovely Vanilla odor is pale yellow to tan and has a shelf life of about 3 years. This can be used as a flavoring agent as well as in solid perfumes. The scent is irresistible pure vanilla.

Vanilla oleoresin is also available. Arctander describes the scent as rich, sweet, and Vanilla without the Tobacco note of the absolute. This is usually used in oil-based scents and not alcohol-based scents or products.

Vanilla water-soluble. I was able to get a sample of this some years ago from a supplier in Madagascar. It was very interesting, but I prefer to use the others.

2 types of CO2 extract, shown diluted in 2% and 12%
Vanilla organoleptics of the absolute and two types of CO2 extraction


ODOR DESCRIPTION/ AROMA ASSESSMENT – Vanilla planifolia is an incomparable scent that cannot be duplicated in the laboratory. It is the scent that comes from the female part of an orchid. The pollinated ‘bean’ or seed capsule is picked green, cured by fermentation and enzymatic action, and the scent develops over several months. The scent is woody floral fruity, and spicy. Sometimes the floral note is at the forefront, but in my experience, a soft wood scent presents first and then the floral, fruity, and spicy. •

Vanilla beans and avanilla absolute

This work is sponsored and supported by Prima Fleur Botanicals. 


Vanilla products are a powerful calmative and relaxant and can be used as an aphrodisiac.

Properties and Uses – Vanilla is used by inhalation and application. Inhaled, it is calming, relaxing, and soothing to the mind. It is used in many body care products and as a sexual lubricant. Applied in a massage blend, it can be an aphrodisiac. I suggest using the CO2 product for the most effective and flavorful results.

I personally use this substance as an odor for inhaling, relaxation, sweet thoughts of where I have seen it, and as a necessary part of most of my perfume base notes as well as in cooking.

Application/ Skincare – Vanilla CO2 is preferred for skin care, and here, it is somewhat anti-inflammatory and will help to soothe and calm skin that is irritated.


Alter this recipe as you need to suit yourself;
you can use a different carrier oil each time you make it.

Maple Sugar/Vanilla Body and Foot scrub
½-cup Maple sugar (for a grainier scrub, use Turbinado sugar for a nice change)
½-cup fine sea salt
¼-cup or less or more of a combination of favorite carrier oils, I choose Sunflower.
1 tablespoon kaolin or China clay (white)
1-tablespoon honey
10 drops each of Vanilla abs or CO2, Lemon, and Orange essential oils.

Mix all ingredients in a small bowl.  Spoon into jar.  This recipe makes 2 cups + ounces.  The oil will rise to the top; just stir before use.  This is an invigorating scrub, so rub gently.  Bath gloves work best for a good exfoliation.  Works very well on legs, feet, knees, and elbows.  Not recommended for the face.

Botanical drawing of Vanilla flower

Vanilla flower

Diffuse/Diffusion ~ Filtered Vanilla tincture can be used in blends in the diffuser. It adds a soft, pleasant, floral note to any blend.

Emotional/Energetic Use ~ Vanilla is used to soothe and calm the psyche and to help with frigidity and sterility.

PERFUMERY Using Vanilla Products

Blends Best with – Vanilla adds an exotic note to just about any formula and is mostly used with floral, fruity, woody, and spicy scents. It is stunning with Amber, Labdanum, and floral scent such as Ylang-Ylang. Blends well with all types of citrus such as Bergamot, Grapefruit, Lemon, Mandarin, Orange, and Tangerine, woods like Atlas Cedar and Sandalwood, and spicy notes such as Frankincense.

Blending with formula – A Favorite Perfume Formula.

8-flowers Perfume – Huit Fleurs
Jasmin abs OR CO2
Lavender SD & abs
Linden abs
Mimosa abs
Neroli SD
Rose abs
Tuberose abs
Vanilla CO2
Ylang-Ylang SD

These can be mixed in any quantity and/or in equal quantities to make a stunning perfume.

Don’t forget to let it age for several weeks before adding an equal quantity of 95% neutral grape spirits. Then let it age again for several weeks. Smell it, sample it. You may want to dilute by half again and age again. The resultant perfume will be 25% pure natural perfume ingredients.

Vanilla tincture ~ I like to make my own Vanilla tincture for use as the fixative in a perfume, a flavoring agent for foods, or in blends that will be alcohol-soluble.

This is what I do: Take a small container and fill it with chopped Vanilla beans that have been sliced open, the grains scraped out and added, and the beans chopped. (It is the grains that will have the most odor). Add just enough 95% neutral grape spirits to fill the container. Let this age for a period of time (at least a month).  Now use the tincture in foods or in alcohol-based perfumes. Portions of the Vanilla cannot be extracted with this high-proof alcohol, and when added to a perfume blend, it will settle out as a dark brown sludge or particles, and the tincture or perfume will need to be filtered. As you remove the tincture for use, you can refill the container with alcohol several more times. The first fraction will be the best, however.
For best flavor results, it is best to use 70-75% grape (spirits) alcohol.—jeannerose-2000


KEY USE ~ Perfumery and flavoring food.

The Vanilla Box ~ In 2000, I received a box from Madagascar – a gift. The box was full of Vanilla beans and a small bottle of a new product, a water-soluble extract of Vanilla.  This is the box. It has a puzzle-style opening and smells very beautiful.

Vanilla box and a bottle of absolute

Vanilla Box

CHEMICAL COMPONENTS ~ Vanillin, ethyl vanillin, and coumarin.
            Comparison of Main Components: Vanilla can be detected in very small quantities – at concentrations of 0.1 parts per million when it is dissolved in water. To show how small changes in chemical structure can influence taste, ethyl vanillin, which has one more carbon and two more hydrogen atoms than vanillin, is 3-4 times stronger in its vanilla aroma.


HYDROSOL: I think it would be a waste of water to try to distill Vanilla beans. To date, there is no hydrosol.

PLEASE NOTE – A true hydrosol should be specifically distilled for the hydrosol, not as a co-product or even a by-product of essential oil distillation. The plant’s cellular water has many components, and most are lost under pressurized short steam runs for essential oil or by using dried material. We recommend that the producers specifically distill for a product by using plant material that is fresh.

VANILLA. HISTORICAL USES ~ As flavoring and as an aphrodisiac. Vanilla was used by the Aztecs and indigenous people of Central America to flavor Cocoa; Vanilla was combined with Chilé Pepper and Chocolate to make a tasty drink only fit for the god/kings. It was cultivated for ornamental use.

Vanilla beans from the Vanilla box.

Vanilla Beans

HERBAL USES OF ORCHID ~ Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23/24 – 79) was known as Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, a naturalist, and a natural philosopher, claimed that even holding the roots of an orchid would stimulate one to ecstasy.  The Latin word for an orchid is orchis, which comes from the Greek orkhis, meaning testicle, because of the twin bulbs resembling testicles. The Romans believed that orchids came into being when Satyrs (a male nature spirit with ears and a tail resembling those of a horse, as well as a permanent, exaggerated erection) spilled their seed upon the earth.1.  

Sometimes orchid flowers are infused in oil. The resultant ‘orchid’ infused oil is used on the skin to promote new tissue formation, accelerate healing, and encourage healthy skin growth. It also has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antifungal properties and is a useful germicide, helping prevent or eliminate infections. It is a versatile ingredient to add to lip balms, creams, lotions, and soap. [There are some orchids that can produce a fixed oil, that is, a non-volatile oil, from the leaves and flowers] •

Seeds of Vanilla - exhausted and dried.

CULINARY USE OF VANILLA ~ What would cookies, cake, Coca-Cola, ice cream, eggnog, hot Chocolate, and Christmas desserts, be without Vanilla? It is the penultimate flavor enhancer of so many delicious foods.

Please note that most Vanilla flavoring today is not from the Vanilla plant
but from wood pulp as a byproduct of papermaking and from coal-tar.

INTERESTING INFORMATION ~ The Vanilla plant is so interesting that entire books have been written about it. In 2004 I spent many happy hours reading “Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance” by Patricia Rain. It is the only plant of the Orchid family used in Aromatherapy.  The plant hasn’t any odor; the odor develops upon drying and curing. Vanilloside breaks down to Vanillin and glucose upon ripening and, when cured, is the source of Vanilla extract. In Madagascar, the anther and stigma have to be pressed together by hand as pollinating bees are absent. Here Vanilla is the only hand-pollinated crop (this was pioneered in 1841 by a 12-year-old slave from Réunion); all West Indies Ocean stock is allegedly from a single cutting in Jardin des Plantes in Paris.

KEY USE ~ Flavoring and in Perfumery.

ABSTRACT/SCIENTIFIC DATA: VANILLA–ITS SCIENCE OF CULTIVATION, CURING, CHEMISTRY, AND NUTRACEUTICAL PROPERTIES. By Anuradha K1, Shyamala BN, Naidu MM. Abstract. Vanilla is a tropical orchid belonging to the family Orchidaceae, and it is mainly used in food, perfumery, and pharmaceutical preparations. The quality of the bean depends on the volatile constituent’s, viz., the vanillin content, the species of the vine used, and the processing conditions adopted. Hence, proper pollination during flowering and curing by exercising utmost care are important aspects of vanilla cultivation. There are different methods of curing, and each one is unique and named after the places of its origin like Mexican process and Bourbon process. Recently, Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore has developed know-how of improved curing process, where the green vanilla beans are cured immediately after harvest and this process takes only 32 days, which otherwise requires minimum of 150-180 days as reported in traditional curing methods. Vanillin is the most essential component of the 200 and odd such compounds present in vanilla beans. Vanillin as such has not shown any antioxidant properties, it along with other compounds has got nutraceutical properties and therefore its wide usage. The medicinal future of vanilla may definitely lie in further research on basic science and clinical studies on the constituents and their mechanism of action.— PMID:24090143 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]


3. Nielsen-Massey Mexican pure vanilla extract.

Arctander, Steffen. Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin. Steffen Arctander. 1960
Herbal Studies Course/ Jeanne Rose & Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2000
Mabberley, D. J. Mabberley’s Plant-Book, 3rd edition, 2014 printing, Cambridge University Press.
Rose, Jeanne.  375 Essential Oils and Hydrosols.  Berkeley, California: Frog, Ltd., 1999
Rose, Jeanne.  The Aromatherapy Book: Applications & Inhalations.  San Francisco, California


SAFETY PRECAUTIONS AND CONTRAINDICATIONS ~Prolonged exposure can be deleterious to the nervous system.

Patch Test ~ If applying a new essential oil to your skin, always perform a patch test to the inner arm (after you have diluted the EO in a vegetable carrier oil). —Wash an area of your forearm about the size of a quarter and dry carefully. Apply a diluted drop (1 drop EO + 1 drop carrier) to the area. Then apply a loose Band-Aid and wait 24 hours. If there is no reaction, then go ahead and use the oil in your formulas. —The Aromatherapy Book, Applications & Inhalations, p. 64

This work is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for accurate diagnosis and treatment by a qualified health care professional. Dosages are often not given, as that is a matter between you and your healthcare provider. The author is neither a chemist nor a medical doctor. The content herein is the product of research and personal and practical experience. Institute of Aromatic & Herbal Studies – Jeanne Rose©

Thank you for reading and your comments.