The genus Vanilla in the family Orchidaceae contains over a hundred different species. The most famous one is Vanilla planifolia, which is grown commercially on a large scale and from which we extract vanilla flavouring and aroma. Less commonly, Vanilla pompona and Vanilla tahitensis are also grown for their scent and taste. V. tahitensis is a polypoid species; a cross between V. planifolia and V. odorata.
The flavour and aroma is extracted from the seeds and pods of the vanilla orchid. The seeds and pods are collectively known as vanilla beans, but are not closely related to legumes (family Fabaceae). The pods are fleshy can be up to 10 inches (25 cm) long.
All members of the genus Vanilla are vines and cling on trees or other structures in the wild. Some vines grow to be upwards 35 meters in length, and some species of vanilla orchid are suspected of being capable of carrying out photosynthesis directly in the vine, rather than relying on leaves for this. (Those species have very small leaves.)
The vanilla orchid leaves, which grow singularly and alternately along the vines, are oblong and succulent (they have a high capacity for storing water). In some species of vanilla, the leaves look more like scales and normal leaves.
The vanilla vines have aerial roots capable of absorbing water and nutrients. These roots develop from nodes that sits opposite from the leaves.
The name Vanilla comes from the Spanish word ”vainilla”, which is the diminutive form of the word ”vaina”. Vaina means sheath in Spanish, and is derived from the Latin word ”vagina” which also means sheath (or scabbard).
Where is vanilla grown?
Members of the genus Vanilla grow wild in sufficiently warm regions around the globe, including tropical America, tropical Africa and tropical Asia.
The famous Vanilla planifolia is native to Central America. Because of its economic importance, it is cultivated in several other parts of the world as well, including Madagascar, Comoros, Réunion which together accounts for roughly 75% of the world´s commercial vanilla production. India is another notable producer, alongside Indonesia, Tonga and Tahiti. Fairly large amounts of V. planifolia is also grown in its native Mexico.
Caring for Vanilla planifolia
You plant the small orchid in some well-draining potting medium, but this medium is only necessary for the initial period. Over time, the plant will develop aerial roots and absorb water and nutrients through them. Many different potting mediums will work, as long as they drain well. You can for instance use pebble, bark or moss.
The vine will need something to support it as it grows. In the wild, it would cling to trees and similar.
You need to water the vine in a way that ensures that the aerial roots gets enough water. In the wild, they would be subjected to frequent rains and mist/fog, but also dry out quickly between such events. Keeping them permanently wet/moist can increase the risk of rot.
The aerial roots are capable of absorbing nutrients diluted in water.
We recommend urea-free 20-10-20 fertilizer. Dilute ½ teaspoon in plenty of water and use it to feed the vine over the course of two weeks. Giving it one or two big helpings instead is not recommended.
Recommended day temperature: 27-32º C (80-90º F)
Recommended night temperature: 15.5-21º C (60-70º F)
The vanilla orchid likes indirect sunlight from morning to noon, and then bright shade from noon to evening. In the wild, these orchids grow under the forest canopy and receive filtered tropical sunlight and no direct afternoon sun.
When the vanilla plant is 3 years old, prune the tip to encourage it to produce flowers.
Vanilla flower clusters
Vanilla flowers grow in clusters, which can be up to 6 inches (15 cm) long. A typically cluster contains 10-20 flowers, but much larger clusters have been observed, in some cases with up to 100 flowers.
Vanilla flowers are white, creamy, greenish or greenish-yellow. Most species of Vanilla orchid have flowers that smell sweet.
Vanilla planifolia flowering
A Vanilla planifolia will not flower until it is at least three years old. As mentioned above, pruning of the tip can encourage flowering in a plant that is old enough.
From the buds, lateral branches will grow, and it is on these branches that the flowers eventually appear. It is possible for a single branch to have up to 20 or so buds opening throughout a month.
The members of the genus Vanilla are pollinated by animals, and can have very specific requirements as to which animals. In captivity, hand-pollination can be required if the right animals are not around.
For the species Vanilla planifolia, the stingless Melipona bees take care of the pollination. If a flower is not pollinated, no fruit (”vanilla bean”) is produced. Each flower must be pollinated soon after opening. In fact, it must happen that very day, because each flower is only open for a day. It opens in the morning and closes again the late afternoon.
If you want to hand-pollinate a vanilla flower, you can use a small splinter of wood to gently lift the rostellum (the ”flap”) to get into the flower. You will need to press the overhanging anther against the stigma for self-pollination to occur.
In commercial plantations, hand-pollination will usually only be carried out for a few select flowers on each stem. That way, the other flowers will remain unpollinated and the vanilla beans produced will be of higher quality.
Picking vanilla beans
After pollination, the vanilla orchid develops a fleshy pod with seeds inside. It will ripen over time, and should not be picked until it is dark brown or even blackish, and has began to emit a powerful smell. The seeds and their pod (”vanilla bean”) is picked and cured to extract its flavour and aroma. It is important not to stress; it can take over 9 months for a vanilla pod to reach the right level of ripeness. It is best to wait until the pod has started to split somewhat, and has fully formed seeds inside it. Professional pickers try to pick the pod just as it splits.
The flavour component of vanilla is bound in glycosides, but can be freed with the help of enzymes. This process is known as curing, and several methods exist. It is recommended to always cure vanilla pods and seeds if they are to be used for their flavour and/or aroma in food, drinks, perfumes, etc.
Curing beans in the sun
If you use this curing method, you will need reliable strong sunlight.
1.) Spread the beans on trays and place them in full sun for 2-3 hours.
2.) Fold the beans into blankets and leave them like that over night. This is known as ”sweating the beans”.
3.) The next day, sun-dry the beans on trays again. Then sweat them in blankets over night. Repeat this process day and night until the beans are deep brown and bendy. It is not unusual for the process to need 2-3 weeks.
4.) Place the deep brown beans in the shade, in place that is well-ventilated. Leave them to dry out for 2-4 weeks.
Curing beans in warm water
1.) Heat up water to 57-88 degrees C (89-120 degrees F).
2.) Place the beans in the water and leave them there for 2-3 minutes.
3.) Put the beans in blankets and leave them to ”sweat” over night.
4.) Place the beans in the shade, in place that is well-ventilated. Leave them to dry out for at least 3-4 weeks.
DIY: How to make vanilla extract at home
Making your own vanilla extract at home is easy if you have vanilla beans and fairly neutral high-proof alcohol, such as vodka or white rum.
Pour alcohol into a glass bottle with an airtight lid. A good rule of thumb is one pint of liquid for each vanilla bean. Fasten the lid. Shake the bottle once a day for three weeks.
Pour ½ cup of alcohol into a small saucepan. Heat up until it begins to smoke (do NOT boil). Put two vanilla beans into a glass bottle with an airtight lid. Pour the warm water into the bottle. Fasten the lid. Shake the bottle once a day for two weeks.
Must I strain?
No. Some recipes will tell you to strain the extract after a certain number of weeks, but this is by no means mandatory. You can just let the bean sit in the alcohol if you prefer.
The history of vanilla cultivation
Early Native American cultivation of vanilla
The ”vanilla bean” (seeds and pod) do not exactly seem mouth-watering when you come across it in the wild, but if left on the vine for a long time it can be sun-cured a bit and give of an interesting sweet smell. Somehow, humans living in Central America a long time ago realized its potential and began experimenting.
The earliest known example of actually cultivating vanilla vines instead of just collecting from the wild is the Totonaco people´s vanilla farming in what is now known as Mexico´s Vera Cruz region. The Tononaco people even had a legend explaining the origin of vanilla: the blood of two lovers had been spilled on the forest floor, and from that spot, a vine sprung up. The vine was a gift from the gods and the sweet-smelling vanilla flowers were there to fill the forest air with the aroma of true love.
In 1427, the Tonocanos were conquered by the Aztecs, and soon the Aztec ruler Itzcoatl was introduced to the alluring scent and flavour of vanilla. He liked it very much, and the Aztecs began putting vanilla in their traditional cacahuatl. This is a drink made from water, ground corn, cocoa beans and honey.
After being conquered, the Tonocanos had to pay taxes to the Aztecs, and they paid using high-quality vanilla beans. The Aztecs called the vanilla pod tlilxochitl (pronounced tea-so-shill), which means black flower. In addition to being fond of the taste, the Aztecs also used vanilla as medicine and considered it an aphrodisiac. (The idea of vanilla being an aphrodisiac was later adopted by the Europeans.)
The Spaniards takes vanilla to Europe
In 1519, the famous Spanish conquistador Cortez was in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire, and there he came in contact with the cacahuatl drink. Soon, he sent both vanilla beans and cocoa beans back to Europe.
For a long time, the Europeans did just what the Aztecs had done: they used vanilla to flavour cocoa drinks, and they believed it to have medical can aphrodisiacal properties. It took quite some time before vanilla found its way into other beverages, and into food. As late as 1602, Queen Elizabeth´s apothecary Hugh Morgan made some waves in England by suggesting that vanilla could be used as a flavouring of its own instead of always being combined with cocoa.
Cultivation outside Mexico
Well into the 1600s, all vanilla imported to Europe came from Mexico. Experimental farms were created in other parts of the world with a similar climate, but even though the vines from Mexico grew well and flowered, they did not produce pods, and people began whispering about ”The Curse of Moctezuma”.
In 1836, a Belgian scientist lifted the curse of Moctezuma by realizing that in Mexico, Vanilla planifolia flowers are pollinated by the Melipona bee. If vanilla is planted in a part of the world where these bees do not occur, no pollination will happen, because no other bees (nor any other animals) will suffice.
That scientist was Professor Charles Morren, a botanist and horticulturist at the University of Liége. Once he understood how pollination happened for vanilla in Mexico, he developed a method for hand-pollination that could be carried out anywhere in the world. Soon, Vanilla planifolia was successfully producing vanilla pods on several tropical islands colonized by the French in the East and West Indies, the Indian Ocean and French Oceania. The Dutch planted vanilla in their colonies in Indonesia, and the British did the same in Southern India.
A new method for hand-pollination
Although Professor Morren´s hand-pollination method worked, it was eventually replaced with a superior hand-pollination method developed on Reunion by the former slave Edmond Albius. This method is still in use today.