RIVERSIDE, Calif. The origin of the Tahitian vanilla orchid, whose cured fruit is the source of the rare and highly esteemed gourmet French Polynesian spice, has long eluded botanists. Known by the scientific name Vanilla tahitensis, Tahitian vanilla is found to exist only in cultivation; natural, wild populations of the orchid have never been encountered.
Now, a team of investigators led by Pesach Lubinsky, a postdoctoral researcher with Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics in UC Riverside's Department of Botany and Plant Sciences, claims to have traced Tahitian vanilla back to its true origins.
In the August issue of the American Journal of Botany, Lubinsky and colleagues use genetic and ethnohistoric analysis to argue that Tahitian vanilla began its evolutionary journey as a pre-Columbian Maya cultivar inside the tropical forests of Guatemala.
"All the evidence points in the same direction," Lubinsky said. "Our DNA analysis corroborates what the historical sources say, namely, that vanilla was a trade item brought to Tahiti by French sailors in the mid-19th century. The French Admiral responsible for introducing vanilla to Tahiti, Alphonse Hamelin, used vanilla cuttings from the Philippines. The historical record tells us that vanilla which isn't native to the Philippines was previously introduced to the region via the Manila Galleon trade from the New World, and specifically from Guatemala."
The Manila galleons (1565-1815) were Spanish trading ships that sailed once or twice each year across the Pacific Ocean between Manila in the Philippines and Acapulco, Mexico. The ships brought Chinese porcelain, silk, ivory, spices, and other exotic goods to Mexico in exchange for New World silver.
The genetic data L
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University of California - Riverside