Vanilla roscheri and Vanilla planifolia

Continuing the series of white-flowered medicinal plants, Katherine writes:

Today’s image is of Vanilla roscheri, and was taken by Ton Rulkens (tonrulkens@Flickr) “in the wild on the north Mozambique coast (Mecufi District)”. The illustration of Vanilla planifolia is from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen.

Vanilla roscheri is a rare orchid found in eastern and southeastern Africa. Due to deficient data, the conservation status of the species globally is unknown, but in South Africa it is considered endangered due to urban expansion, habitat degradation, invasive species and agriculture. Commonly known as Roscher’s vanilla, Vanilla roscheri is found in open bushlands, scrub, mangroves and open evergreen scrub to an elevation of about 1050m (3450 ft.). Sweetly fragrant, the flowers of the plants bloom in the (tropical and subtropical) winter. Plants are succulent vining climbers.

Medicinal information for “vanilla” almost always refers to the extract of vanillin from the commercial Vanilla planifolia, originally of Mesoamerica and northern South America. Vanilla roscheri also seems to contain the compound, as use of the species has been documented in traditional medicines of African indigenous peoples. An excellent article on the origin and use of vanilla is available from UCLA’s Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library’s Medicinal Spices Exhibit, where the following from Robert Bentley and Henry Trimen’s Medicinal Plants; being descriptions with original figures of the principal plants employed in medicine and an account of the characters, properties, and uses of their parts and products of medicinal value (London, Churchill, 1880) is quoted: “Vanilla is an aromatic stimulant, with a tendency towards the nervous system. It has also been regarded as an aphrodisiac. It has been employed as a remedy in hysteria, low fevers, impotency, etc. But its use as a medicine is obsolete in this country, although still sometimes employed on the Continent and elsewhere.”

Vanilla roscheri
Vanilla planifolia

10 responses to “Vanilla roscheri and Vanilla planifolia”

  1. Diana Ferguson

    Oh yes; love the photo and the info Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Bonnie

    Very interesting! Vanilla is a flavoring that I had totally taken for granted!

  3. k garness

    My understanding is that, in cultivation, there needs to be pollination by hand because there are no suitable pollinators for vanilla in the plantations. Does anyone know the pollinators of Vanilla roscheri?

  4. Wouter Bleeker

    A biogeographical question. How do two similar species of a rare genus end up in such different places around the world, one in Mesoamerica, and the other in southeastern Africa?

  5. Tracy Evans

    If Katherine’s last name was included we recognize her contributions in her post-UBC life. I am thoroughly enjoying this series.

  6. Ann Kent HTM

    Thank you, Katherine. During the early summer months, I do lots of herb study activities with my clients and students and this series provides us with images and resource material not readily found in books and texts about herbs. The link to the UCLA Medicinal Spices Exhibit is very helpful. Ann Kent.

  7. Daniel Mosquin

    Wouter, the short answer is that no one knows for sure. The genus has just over a hundred species recognized, and because of the relationships within the genus, “at least three long distance migration events are needed to explain the present distribution of Vanilla species in tropical areas”.
    The quote is from the abstract of a recent paper, which attempts to explain the biogeography. See: Bouetard, A. et al. 2010. Evidence of transoceanic dispersion of the genus Vanilla based on plastid DNA phylogenetic analysis. Mol Phylogenet Evol. 55(2):621-30.
    k garness, in Biodiversity and Evolution in the Vanilla Genus (PDF), chapter 3 discusses the pollination biology of the genus. In short, little is known about the pollination biology in Africa and Asian representatives of the genus. For example, “In Africa,
    euglossine bees do not occur, but other large bees may be pollinators there (Van Der Cingel, 2001). Despite three years of observation of the species V. crenulata in Africa, no pollinator visit was recorded (Johansson, 1974, as cited in (Soto Arenas & Cameron, 2003)).”
    The pollination-by-hand requirement is associated with the commercial Vanilla when grown in non-native areas.

  8. bob holland

    Re: biogeography. Recall that Africa and South America formerly were one continent. If the genus is that old (mid-Cretaceous, near the dawn of the monocots), then it is easy for vicariant species to diverge.

  9. Daniel Mosquin

    Bob, that explanation works well for some groups, but not for Vanilla. Also from the abstract that I linked: “Early radiation of the Vanilla genus and diversification by vicariance consecutive to the break-up of Gondwana, 95 million years ago (Mya), was incompatible with the admitted age of origin of Angiosperm. Based on the Vanilloideae age recently estimated to 71 million years ago (Mya), we conclude that the genus Vanilla would have appeared approximately 34 Mya in South America, when continents were already separated.”

  10. Katherine

    Thank you, glad everyone is enjoying. I have to admit I love Vanilla and was pleasantly surprised by some aspects.

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