A Commercially Cultivated Orchid Grown for its Delicious Beans
It may come as a surprise to learn that vanilla bean pods come from an orchid. In fact, Vanilla planifolia is the only orchid that produces an edible fruit.
The vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia) was originally discovered climbing among the trees in Mexico and thrives in warm tropical and subtropical regions of the world. They’re only one in the genus of about 100 climbing and terrestrial (land) orchids. Vanilla orchids may climb anywhere from 10 – 80 feet into trees or shrubs. The original pollinator of V. planifolia is a small bee found only in Mexico called the Melipona Bee.
Because of the symbiotic relationship between the orchid and the bee, Mexico was the only resource for vanilla for many years. Today, vanilla is grown commercially in Madagascar, Caribbean, Mexico, Comoro Islands, Indonesia, Hawaii, and Tahiti. To ensure pollination and the best vanilla flavor, each flower on every vanilla orchid is hand-pollinated.
The cultivation of vanilla from the vanilla orchid is extremely labor-intensive. The plants themselves don’t start producing vanilla beans until after three years. When they finally bloom, the flowers only stay open for a day and have to be carefully pollinated within 12 hours of blooming. No easy feat considering the flowers are blooming every day at different times for several weeks.
It takes 9 full months for the seed pods to become mature enough to harvest and every pod matures at a different rate. Which means, like the flower pollination, workers are harvesting daily for 3-4 weeks at a time. Following harvesting, the seed pod curing process takes another three months. There’s simply no rushing the production of pure vanilla extract, which is why the liquid spice remains expensive to this day.
Vanilla Orchid Profile
Botanical Name: Vanilla planifolia
Common Name: Vanilla Orchid
Zones: USDA Zones 10a, 10b, and 11
Height: 10-80 feet
Exposure: Full Shade
Flower Color: They bloom in white, yellow or green. It may take a couple of years to see the first bloom on a cutting.
Bloom Time: Mid-spring to early summer
Propagation: The easiest way for the hobbyist to propagate V. planifolia is by stem cuttings.
Special Needs: They enjoy some common orchid fertilizer a couple of times a month and don’t like their potting medium to dry out.
Vanilla orchids are evergreen plants with 6 “, yellow-green, fleshy foliage. Vanilla likes a neutral soil pH (6.6 – 7.5). They bloom from mid-spring to late summer and only for the day. Their flowers are tubular, about 5″ across, and may be white, yellow or green. If the flowers are successfully pollinated (which would have to be done by the gardener), 6″-10” long seed pods will follow about nine months later.
Their potting medium should have plenty of humus, be well-draining and properly mixed specifically for orchids. Their soil needs to be kept evenly moist at all times and resent their feet becoming dried out between waterings. These vines need to have a support of some type for climbing and clinging such as wood or a stake.
Vanilla orchids prefer high humidity if you can give it to them, and need to be grown in an area where nighttime temperatures don’t drop below 55 degrees. Although they like shade for most of their hours, they enjoy some filtered sun.
Propagating Vanilla Planifolia
Propagating this orchid is very simple when done by stem cuttings. With a sterilized cutting tool, a cutting is clipped off at the top of the plant just below a node that has good-sized aerial roots. The new cutting is then placed into a pot or a flat that has very moist sphagnum moss. Once the new cutting takes root, it can be potted up into orchid growing medium. If a new piece grow off the original cutting, simply cut away the old part of the plant leaving the actively growing piece.
V. planifolia isn’t hard for the beginner to grow and is especially suited to the greenhouse, as well as indoors among other houseplants.