Adonis Diaries

Vanilla: 12 year old slave invented pollination technique

Posted on: June 17, 2017

A pollination technique invented by a 12 year old slave is the reason Vanilla is available today

Aug 30, 2016 Neil Patrick

Edmond Albius was born a slave but became an important figure in the cultivation of vanilla.

At the age of 12, he invented a technique for pollinating vanilla orchids quickly and profitably.

Albius’ technique revolutionized the cultivation of vanilla and made it possible to profitably grow vanilla beans away from their native Mexico.

Portrait of Edmond Albius, circa 1863 Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain
Portrait of Edmond Albius, circa 1863 Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain

French colonists brought vanilla beans to Réunion and nearby Mauritius in the 1820s with the hope of starting production there.

However, the vines were sterile because no insect would pollinate them. In the 1830s, Charles Morren, a professor of botany at the University of Liège in Belgium, developed a method of hand-pollinating vanilla, but his technique was slow and required too much effort to make cultivating vanilla a moneymaking proposition.

Drawing of Vanilla from the Florentine Codex (circa 1580) and description of its use and properties written in the Nahuatl language Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain
Drawing of Vanilla from the Florentine Codex (circa 1580) and description of its use and properties written in the Nahuatl language Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain

In 1841, Albius discovered how to quickly pollinate the vanilla orchid with a thin stick or blade of grass and a simple thumb gesture. With the stick or grass blade, field hands lift the rostellum, the flap that separates the male anther from the female stigma, and then, with their thumbs, smear the sticky pollen from the anther over the stigma.

In 1848, France outlawed slavery in its colonies, and Albius left the plantation for St. Denis, where he worked as a kitchen servant.

He was convicted of stealing jewellery and sentenced to ten years in prison, but the sentence was commuted after five years when the governor granted him clemency in light of his enormous contribution to vanilla production in Réunion.

Albius died in poverty in St. Suzanne in 1880.

Vanilla fruits, dried By B.navez - Photo : B.navez, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=436896
Vanilla fruits, dried By B.navez – Photo : B.navez, CC BY-SA 3.0, 

Albius’ manual pollination method is still used today, as nearly all vanilla is pollinated by hand.

After Albius’s discovery, Réunion became for a time the world’s largest supplier of vanilla. French colonists used Albius’ technique in Madagascarto cultivate vanilla, and Madagascar remains the world’s chief vanilla producer.

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