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The World's Only Edible Orchid

Of the world's estimated 28,000 orchid species, only one produces an edible product. This plant's dainty flowers open for just one day, and must be hand-pollinated to produce the orchid's delicate, aromatic seedpod. Once mature, the pods will endure an arduous three-to-six month curing process to develop the rich, creamy flavor that forms one of the world's most prized culinary ingredients – vanilla!

Vanilla is considered the world's only edible, fruit-bearing orchid – and the planet's second-most expensive spice, eclipsed only by saffron (another flower-derived spice). The plant's origins date back to the Totonaco natives of Mexico who, when defeated by the Aztecs, were forced to relinquish their prized plant. Centuries later, Hernando Cortez conquered the Aztecs and again appropriated the vanilla orchid as a spoil of war. Cortez took the plant back to Spain, where he introduced European palates to the delicious combination of vanilla and cocoa. The plant has been a cherished flavoring ever since.

Today, the world's vanilla is produced in four main regions. Madagascar and Indonesia cultivate approximately 90% of the world's supply, while Mexico and Tahiti produce most of the remaining 10%. Artisan growers, mostly along the central and southern Pacific and Caribbean coasts, cultivate Costa Rican vanilla. The region's vanilla orchids are a hybrid of Mexico's Vanilla planifolia, and the pods are cured using the "Bourbon method" popularized in Madagascar vanilla production. The resulting vanilla is sweet and smooth, with a hint of spicy overtones.

For food lovers and inquisitive minds, tours to Costa Rican vanilla farms are available. The nation's most comprehensive vanilla tour is at Villa Vanilla, an organic spice farm located inland from Manuel Antonio. Here, you'll tour the farm, learn how to pollinate orchids, and have a chance to sample many of the plantation's delicious creations, including vanilla ice cream, cocoa nib cookies, and homemade hot cocoa.

If your tastes extend beyond edible orchids, plan a visit to one of Costa Rica's excellent botanical gardens. There are more than 1,400 orchid varieties in Costa Rica, from the miniscule Platystele jungermannioides – the world's smallest orchid, with flowers measuring one-hundredth of an inch in diameter – to the purple guaria morada, Costa Rica's national flower.

Lankester Botanical Garden, located in Cartago, is one of Costa Rica's most impressive botanical gardens. Lankester, which is part of the University of Costa Rica, features nearly 1,000 orchid species, including half of the nation's native varieties and 280 endemic species that grow only in Costa Rica. There are more than 15,000 orchid plants on display at Lankester, and the garden's orchid collection is considered one of the world's most renowned. There are many other botanical gardens located throughout Costa Rica, and several specialize in orchids. Among them, the Botanical Orchid Garden in Alajuela, the Monteverde Orchid Garden, and Casa Orquideas on the Golfo Dulce.