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.
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.
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.
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