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Edmond Albius, creator of the Vanilla Orchid Hand Pollination Technique
If you are amongst the majority that make Vanilla Ice Cream the best selling ice cream flavour in Canada, then you owe thanks to a young African slave named Edmond Albius, who at the age of 12 invented a quick, low-cost, and effective technique for manually pollinating vanilla orchids.
Vanilla is an orchid plant, native to Mexico, where it has been cultivated for centuries and the beans harvested to make vanilla flavouring. In the late 1500s Spanish colonizers introduced the flavouring to Europeans who eventually brought the plants to Europe and its colonies with the objective of cultivating them for vanilla production. This effort was a complete failure. While the plants grew very well, due to a lack of natural pollinators, the plants did not fruit and grow vanilla beans.
In the 1830s early methods of hand-pollinating vanilla, developed by European scientists were too slow and required too much effort to make vanilla cultivation profitable.
Edmund Albius, orphaned at birth on the island of Bourbon (modern day Réunion), was enslaved by Ferreol Bellier-Beaumont, who introduced him to horticulture and botany, at a young age. In 1841, at age 12, upon close examination of vanilla flowers, Albius realized that there was a flap of tissue that separated the male and female reproductive organs. Using a blade of grass, he push aside the flap of tissue in order to press the male and female organs against each other to transfer the sticky pollen onto the female organ.
This simple process resulted in the successful pollination of the vanilla orchid where previously plants had remained sterile for upwards of 20 years. His technique was quickly taught to other slaves on the island of Reunion and proved so effective that annual production of vanilla increased to 100 lbs by 1948. Ten years later it was 2 tonnes, by 1867 it was 20 tonnes, and by 1898, over 200 tonnes of vanilla were exported from Reunion making it the world leading vanilla bean producer.
Despite his key contribution to the vanilla industry, Edmond Albius received very little recognition. He was freed in 1848, the same year France abolished slavery and subsequently worked as a kitchen servant. He was convicted of jewellery theft and sentenced to 10 years. His sentence was commuted after 5 years when his former master petitioned on his behalf to the governor, citing his contributions to the vanilla industry and giving him full credit for the pollination technique still used to this day.
Albius died in poverty in 1880.