Folklore and history
According to legend, a nobleman from Totonicapan had a daughter called Xanath, who was breathtakingly beautiful and lived in a palace close to Tajin. One day, as Xanath was making an offering to Chac-Mool (the divine messenger), she heard an enchanting tune and soon followed it into the ceremonial centre. There inside she discovered a strong handsome young man called Tzarahuin, who was whistling to himself. At once they fell deeply in love and met up as often as possible to make music and love.
Then one day, as Xanath came to visit Tzarahuin, she was spotted by the Fat God of Happiness who, taken by her delicate innocence and strong determination, was immediately besotted. Twice he approached the girl but she ran away frightened. Finally his advances were more successful and she listened as he confessed his love for her. But Xanath was true to her love Tzarahuin and spurned the the Fat God of Happiness.
Not defeated, the Fat God of Happiness visited Xanath's father and bestowed upon him great secrets known only to the Gods. As a result, Xanath's father became immensely rich and powerful and in gratitude to the Fat God of Happiness, he ordered Xanath to marry him.
Now Tzarahuin was not a God or even of noble descent. In fact his family were farmers and Tzarahuin himself was an artist, painting and making music for the temple. Despite all this, Xanath defied both her father and the Fat God of Happiness and remained true to Tzarahuin, refusing to leave him. In a total rage, the Fat God of Happiness transformed Xanath into a delicate orchid with beautiful white flowers and an exquisite enticing scent.
When Tzarahuin found out that his love was gone, he took his own life at the foot of the plant. But as this is a legend, the story doesn't end there. The orchid that Xanath was turned into is the tlilxochitl or vanilla orchid. Every springtime, including this one, Tzarahuin returns in the form of a humble, sting-less, melipona bee. He spends hours lovingly circling in and around her dainty petals and in this way they continue to make music and love together forever.
Vanilla was cultivated extensively by the nations of Central America. Then in the 1520s Hernan Cortes the Spanish conquistador arrived on the scene and took the spice and plants back to Europe. Attempts to cultivate Vanilla outside it's native land proved futile however because Xanath remains true to Tzarahuin. In other words, apart from the humble melipona bee, vanilla does not allow any other insect to pollinate it.
Then in 1837 a Belgian botanist 'discovered' this fact on behalf of western science. He developed a method of artificially pollinating vanilla but the method was not financially viable as a commercial solution. Finally in 1841, a 12 year old slave Edmond Albius who lived on Ile Bourbon discovered that the plant could be hand pollinated and global cultivation of the plant began.
Vanilla is almost exclusively used as a flavouring. Pure vanilla powder is very strong so only small amounts need to be used.