Vanilla planifolia

Vanilla planifolia is the “orchid of commerce”. Its story is so interesting and information on it so scarce that we hope you’ll be intrigued by its fascinating lore.  Here are some growing tips, but for more in-depth background on its history, processing and interesting recipes, we hope you’ll obtain the well-written Vanilla Cookbook by Patricia Rains. It’s available from the American Orchid society.

Vanilla is a tropical genus and must be treated as such. We’ve seen Vanilla planifolia growing in our Florida Everglades but after the great freeze here in 1977, plants could only be found on the south side of host trees. (That is, the few that had survived the freeze AND greedy collectors.)  We hope you’ll take an interest in one of America’s natives, one that we’d hate to lose.

Growing Tips

Vanilla can be best described as a rampant vine.  Essentially it needs something to climb along.  It does best in bright shade, the same light condition required by Cattleyas.  Moisture level and humidity should be kept high to maintain growth.  When established, it thrives with daily misting, as do Vandas, but should not be allowed to sit in a soggy mix.  Fertilization is not heavy but should be regular during warm months, e.g. 1 Tbsp. 30-10-10/gallon water ever 2-3 weeks.  Temperatures for best growth are between 80 degrees F and 95 degrees F.  Growth slows and terminates when temperatures fall below 55 degrees F.

Few pests find Vanilla hospitable, but certain fungus diseases can be a problem when moisture levels are excessive.  Treatment with Benlate (Benomyl) is indicated.

Cuttings can be started using 18” to 24” lengths of vine.  We allow a few inches of vine to be planted in a bark mix, if possible with a live root.  The remainder should be tightly attached to a tree fern pole with wire.  Frequent misting is required to maintain moisture level around the plant until it has new roots to absorb water on its own.  Initial rooting may take up to a year to occur, but once started, growth is rapid.  You’ll need to prepare a place for it to climb.  Flowering may take 1 to 3 years after the vine is established, and generally occurs when the plant is growing horizontally or pendant.

Flowering and Pollination

In the Vanilla plantations of Madagascar and Mexico it has been noticed that flowering occurs after a dry period.  By growing on the dry side during the winter months, flowering will occur in May through July in most of North America.  Drier conditions at this time will also diminish the chances for fungal rot problems.

Vanilla planifolia will have 14-20 flowers in the leaf axils, each flower opening in succession and lasting only a day.  Pollination must be done daily on open flowers.  The pollen mass of Vanilla differs from the solid pollinia of other orchids, appearing as fine granules.  Pollination is tricky and close observation of the column structure is necessary.  You’ll notice that the rostellum is shaped like a flap that covers the stigmatic surface.  A toothpick or similar small implement may be used to fold the rostellum out of the way so that the anther with the pollen mass can be pressed onto the stigma.  If pollination occurs, the ovary will enlarge and develop into the seed pod or “bean”.  It will take 8 to 9 months for the “bean” to mature.  Younger plants seldom hold “beans” for that long.

Curing the “Bean”

“Beans” must be picked as yellowing starts to occur.  The simplest method of curing is one used in Madagascar.  The “beans” are scalded for 20 seconds in 190 degree F water; this is known as “killing the bean”.  It essentially stops ripening by destroying the enzymes responsible for that process.  The next step involves “sweating” and sun drying.  In Madagascar the scalded beans are wrapped in woolen blankets and put into “sweating boxes”, where they are kept overnight and brought out on sun racks for two hours during the heat of the day.  Sweating can be done at home using a plastic container with a tight lid.  Sun drying may also be done in a 120 degree F oven for two hours.  This sweating and heating is repeated for seven days.  The last step in curing is called “air drying”, in which the beans are laid out daily to dry in the hot sun and wrapped at night to retain the heat.  This step may take 3 months or more before sufficient curing is complete.  The fully cured beans will be supple, oily, and aromatic.

There are several different curing processes used; experimentation will be needed to get the feel of the procedure.  Two interesting sources of information are listed.  We recommend the excellent Vanilla Cookbook, already mentioned. 

Extracting Vanilla

This is the easy part.  Several recipes can be used but all involve soaking beans in vodka, brandy, or rum.  A glass jar that closes tightly is needed.  Use one quart of 100 proof vodka and 6 cured beans.  Close the jar tightly and store in a cool, dark location for 6 to 8 weeks.  Shake the bottle weekly.  When the liquid becomes a dark amber color, it should be poured through a strainer or coffee filter.  The beans may be reused to make another jar of extract.