There are three species of vanilla, all of which grow from a perennial climbing orchid, vanilla planifolia, vanilla tahitensis, and vanilla pompona. All three species originate from the orchid v. planifolia, which is native to Mesoamerica and was used by the Aztecs.
In the 1520s Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés attempted to bring vanilla back to Europe, but failed because the orchid could only be pollinated by a bee that is native to Mexico. It wasn't until 1819 that a method of hand pollination was discovered, which is the method that is still used today.
Until hand pollination was discovered, Mexico was the leading producer of vanilla in the world. Today, all three major species of vanilla are grown worldwide. Tropical areas along the Indian Ocean, including Madagascar, Indonesia and the West Indies produce v. planifolia, also know as Bourbon vanilla and Madagascar vanilla. In the South Pacific, Tahiti and the West Indies the species v. pompona and v. tahitensis is grown.
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron because of the labor intensive nature of hand pollination. Vanilla pods are picked green and unripe. The pods must go through a curing and fermenting process before a fragrance develops.
To use vanilla beans, split them in half using a knife and scrap out the seeds inside. Use the seeds in baking and save the skins to create an extract or flavor sugar. Throw vanilla skins into jars of sugar to infuse vanilla flavor. To make vanilla extract, place vanilla skins in a jar and cover with rum or brandy, allow 2 weeks for flavor to develop. Vanilla powder is the whole beans ground up into powder.