Like chili peppers, vanilla comes from South and Central America, as well as from the Caribbean. It is one of the thousands of orchid species.
Historians believe that the first people to cultivate it were the early dwellers on the east coast of Mexico called the Totonacs. The Totonacs were conquered by the Aztecs, who got their vanilla before being conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century.
The Aztecs flavored their chocolate with vanilla and so did the Spaniards once they grew accustomed to the taste. As a result, Europeans considered vanilla to be nothing more than a flavoring for chocolate for decades. Only in the 17th century did the use of vanilla without chocolate become popular. In England, Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed sweetmeats flavored with vanilla. By the 18th century, the French were making ice cream flavored with vanilla.