Vanilla has both a literal and a figurative meaning. Literally, the term refers to a plant; the seedpod of the plant, which is often referred to as a vanilla bean; vanilla powder, which is produced from grinding the entire bean after it’s been dried; and the bean’s extract or a synthetic imitation which is used to flavor a whole range of culinary products from cakes and cookies to ice cream.
Since 1975, vanilla has been used figuratively to refer to something basic or lacking adornment. This use arises from the fact that this flavor has long been considered the standard and basic ice cream choice, among the many and varied flavors offered. The term "plain vanilla" has come to be used in business to describe a type of security that does not have special features.
Vanilla is the genus name of a group of tropical vines that are in the orchid family and grow in the Americas. The word comes from the Spanish vainilla and refers to the shape of the plants’ seedpods. The seedpods have been used for flavoring food for many years: in pre-Columbian times, Aztecs employed it in making chocolate. Today, the particular plant that is are used for commercial preparation is often Vanilla planifolia.
The three kinds of beans now available are Bourbon-Madagascar, Mexican, and Tahitian. Some products made from the Mexican beans have been found to contain coumarin, which is potentially toxic, so care should be taken when using products from this source.
It’s also important to be aware of the technical meaning of vanilla product names. "Natural" means that the product is made 100% from real vanilla. "Imitation" is entirely synthetic, and is primarily made from byproducts of the paper industry. "Vanilla flavored" has a combination of natural and synthetic ingredients, while artificial-flavored vanilla is also entirely synthetic.
Vanilla figures prominently in a chapter of Anne of Green Gables called “A New Departure in Flavorings” in which Anne makes a cake especially for the minister’s wife and unintentionally substitutes anodyne liniment — a salve for sprains and similar pains — for the intended ingredient. Needless to say, the cake doesn’t have the desired flavor, and the error is typical of Anne’s struggles.