Why are wild Mayan vanilla orchids of Peten, Guatemala forgotten? Ignored? Missing?

Wild vanilla orchid plants of Peten are noticeably totally missing from monographs and peer-reviewed journal articles on vanilla of Mexico and Guatemala. The helpful and informative articles by vanilla orchid specialists list everything for Veracruz (no surprise) and Oaxaca, Chiapas; a bit for Campeche and Quintana Roo, not much for Belize or Honduras, lots for Ixcan area of Quiche, Guatemala, one lonely species for Izabal, Guatemala, and ZILCH for El Peten area (the entire northern section of Guatemala, the heartland of the Lowland Maya civilization).

Surely the rulers of Tikal, Uaxactun, Yaxha and the scores of other Mayan cities had access to vanilla?


Why is “all vanilla from Veracruz, Mexico” if wild vanilla orchids are all over Guatemala?

I love Mexican vanilla. I have actually been to Papantla, Veracruz, the heartland of vanilla cultivation in Mexico. I have experienced vanilla vines growing in cacao orchards adjacent to the Mayan ruins of Comalcalco, Tabasco.

My first experience with Mayan ruins was visiting Palenque in 1961 at age 16. Writing my high school thesis on this Mexican educational adventure won 1st prize in my high school which helped me be accepted at Harvard. I then spent several decades photographing the Mayan architecture, especially Chenes, Puuc, Rio Bec, and of course Palenque, Yaxchilan, sites in Belize, Copan Honduras, and sites throughout Guatemala. But most of what provided my first experiences was Mexico. Indeed my first student internship was an informal period in summer of 1962 with the Bonampak archaeological team, going with them from Tenosique to Bonampak (which involved hiking and carrying supplies and equipment the last several kilometers).

It is no surprise that effectively every web site on vanilla says “vanilla was domesticated in Veracruz by the Totonac people.” Then everyone adds the following totally undocumented claim “the Totonacs spread vanilla cultivation throughout Mesoamerica…”

Whoa, does this mean that the Classic Maya had zero knowledge of vanilla before Totonac traders came hiking into their cities? There is wild vanilla IN EVERY LOWLAND PART OF GUATEMALA (and surely adjacent Chiapas, Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Belize).

So not one single solitary Maya person harvested vanilla until the Totonacs came from Veracruz? Huh?

I admire and respect the capability of the people and civilizations of Veracruz to have popularized vanilla literally around the world. But I would like to dedicate myself and my team to rescuing Maya knowledge of vanilla. This will be done in the following manner:

  • Vanilla of Peten
  • Vanilla of Alta Verapaz
  • Vanilla of Izabal

The vanilla of Ixcan region (Quiche) is already well known; this research can be expanded to adjacent Huehuetenango.


Was Vanilla mixed with Mayan Tobacco?

The Maya put many of the same flavorings into their tobacco that they featured for their chocolate drink. Even today, many of the major international brands of chocolate have cacao (cocoa) inside. Would be interesting to learn whether vanilla is also in cigarettes.


Is Vanilla mixed with Copal for Incense?

Several flavorings for Mayan incense were also flavorings used for edible foods. It would be great for a student to do a PhD dissertation on “Mayan vanilla.” So this FLAAR web page is to offer some tips.


If Atole drink is flavored with vanilla, then surely the Classic Maya had it?

It is still debated whether the Classic Maya had tortillas (since they consumed their maize as atole and other liquid recipes and as “cornbread”). Assuming that atole is a drink for thousands of years, if vanilla was indeed a standard flavoring, then most likely the Maya were able to raise or harvest wild vanilla.


Of course the Classic Maya of Peten did have Vanilla orchids available

In 2018 we found from two knowledgeable people who live in Izabal who told us that there is abundant wild vanilla that grows in the hills.


Vanilla species unknown Izabal hills garden fallen trellis Westcott Feb 14,2018 Nicholas Hellmuth

Here is the vanilla species that grows in the hills of Izabal. We did not take this from the forest; we found it under a collapsed trellis in a garden of a friend on the Golfete. It is essential to find this vanilla species when it flowers. Only then will we know whether it is the same species recorded for the Bocas del Polochic, Vanilla martinezii (Soto Arenas & Dressler 2010) .


In summary: yes there are wild vanilla orchids in Peten. Question is how many different species (so the question is not whether, but how many). Fredy Archila said we could potentially expect up to three wild species in Guatemala (personal communication May 2022).

Yes, there was almost certainly cultivated vanilla orchids as well. Hopefully archaeologists can find remains in burials or other parts of ancient Mayan sites, especially in well preserved places such as caves.

And of course the Classic Maya of Peten had access to vanilla via trade routes from many other parts of Mesoamerica.

But it is highly unlikely that the Classic Maya of Peten had to wait for Totonacs to bring it to them. Yes, there is Veracruz influence in ballgame yokes, hachas, handstones, and palmas. Most of this influence is on the Costa Sur, during the centuries of major Teotihuacan influence. But there are Veracruz associated ballgame stones all over Mayan parts of Mesoamerica.

We are preparing articles that list all references to Mayan vanilla in pre-Columbian Peten.


Botanical and Ethnobotanical Reality Check: There are wild Vanilla Orchid Vines in many areas of Peten

During our August 2018-July 2019 field work project in Parque Nacional Yaxha, Nakum, Naranjo (PNYNN) Senaida Ba, Teco (Moises Daniel Perez Diaz) and Nicholas Hellmuth found wild vanilla orchid vines in many bajo ecosystems of the park. These vanilla orchid vines are quite common.

During our May 2022 field work in the Reserva de la Biosfera Maya we found wild vanilla orchid vine flowering east of Los Pescaditos and lots more flowering that same week along the road from Yaxha to Nakum in the Parque Nacional Yaxha, Nakum and Naranjo (PNYNN). So we are now preparing several FLAAR reports on these vanilla orchid flowers.

Initial Bibliography on Mayan Vanilla

We are preparing a complete bibliography on Vanilla of Mesoamerica. But until that is finished and posted, here is a start:

  • AMES, Oakes and Donovan Stewart CORRELL
  • 1952
  • Orchids of Guatemala. Fieldiana: Botany Vol. 26, No. 1, Chicago Natural History Museum.

    The authors state that because it is not realistic to press a vanilla flower (due to its 3-dimensional shape) that most botanical specimens are not adequate to identify which species is the correct name. They suggest preserving the flowers in alcohol. Nonetheless they do devote several pages to vanilla orchids: pp. 54-60. And, as he suggests, Vanilla pfaviana turns out to be same as Vanilla inodora.

    Zilch mentioned for anywhere in what is today the RBM area of Peten.
    Available Online:
  • ARCHILA, Fredy
  • 1999
  • Hallazgos importantes en Vanilla/Orchidaceae de Jussieu, para Guatemala. Revista Guatemalensis 2(3): 47.
  • ARCHILA, Fredy
  • 2014
  • Listado de orquídeas de Guatemala. Revista Guatemalensis 17(2): 32-71.
  • ARCHILA, Fredy and G. CHIRON
  • 2012
  • Addition à la flore du Guatemala: Vanilla esquipulensis (Orchidaceae), espèce des forêts xérophytes. Richardiana 13: 3- 12.
  • 2010
  • El batido o Kakao, la bebida de los dioses. Revista Guatemalensis 13(1): 1-14.

ARCHILA Fredy, SZLACHETKO, D., CHIRON, Guy, LIPIŃSKA, M., BERTOLINI, V. and K. MYSTKOWSKA 2018 Orchid Genera and Species in Guatemala. Koeltz Botanical Books. Germany. 724 pages.

We do not yet have this publications; but I estimate this is the best botanical monograph on orchids specifically of Guatemala.

  • BALICK, Michael J., NEE, Michael H. and Daniel E. ATHA
  • 2000
  • Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Belize: With Common Names and Uses. Memoirs of the New York Botanical Garden Vol. 85. 246 pages.
  • SOTO Arenas, Miguel A. and Robert L. DRESSLER
  • 2010
  • A Revision of the Mexican and Central American species of Vanilla Plumier ex. Miller. With a characterization of their its region of the nuclear ribosomal DNA. Lankesteriana. Vol. 9, No. 3. Pages 285-354.

Webpages (thousands exist, here are two):

Has photos of about five or so species, and not specifically or Mesoamerica.

Atole de vainilla.


Most recently updated May 16, 2022 by Nicholas Hellmuth.
First Posted February 2018

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