Vanilla planifolia is the only orchid of significant economic importance as an edible crop. By the 18th century, demand for vanilla shot sky high. Plants were brought to the botanical gardens in Paris and London where botanists tried to encourage the plant to fruit. No beans meant no vanilla extract and no product to sell. The plant needed a pollinator but nobody knew how bees and insects did it.
Edmond Albius was a 12-year old enslaved Black boy on a plantation in Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean. In 1841, Edmond showed his owner Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont two vanilla beans hanging from the vine. Edmond explained that he had produced those fruits himself. His owner was in disbelief. Edmond invented a method to hand-pollinate the vanilla orchid. Using a thin stick or blade, Edmond lifted the projecting part of the flower (rostellum) that separates the pollen from the stigma. With his thumbs, he crushed the pollen and stigma together. The vanilla industry was born. At the end of 1848, all enslaved people in the colony were emancipated. Edmond became a freeman and was given a last name, Albius.
Andrews, Henry Charles, (active 1799-1828)
The botanist's repository, for new, and rare plants.
London: The author, 1816