Growing a Vanilla Bean- The Coveted Culinary Spice
By Laurelynn Martin and Byron Martin
|Vanilla vine with fruit|
Vanilla, or Vanilla planifolia, is a vining orchid native to Mexico and it’s one of the most highly sought after spices in cultivation. Vanilla has become a mainstay flavoring and essence in the world of culinary and perfumes. Today, vanilla is grown mostly for commercial production in Madagascar, Reunion Island, Comoro Islands, Indonesia and Mexico.
The Aztecs first used vanilla for flavoring in cocoa. The long vanilla bean pods were dried and cured to produce its distinctive flavor. Today, the pods are sometimes used whole and the flavoring is drawn out by infusion or the pods are split and the tiny seeds are scraped out. You may have seen tiny seeds infused in creams or custard based dishes such as Crème Brûlée.
The Vanilla orchid grows wild in tropical forests and comes from one of the oldest plant families (Orchidaceae). Ninety-five percent of the world’s vanilla bean trade comes from one species, Vanilla planifolia. The vine can reach up to 30 meters long and the pods form in bean-like clusters.
Grown in the Jungle
Once Vanilla orchids vine up tree trunks, over time the roots will head downward to the ground and bury themselves in the loose soil and litter where they act more like a terrestrial orchid. Root hairs appear on the once smooth roots and they uptake water and food from the substrate.
Growing a Vanilla vine as a container plant is not difficult because this type of orchid is both epiphytic and semi-terrestrial meaning it lives above the ground where its roots attach to tree trunks or other support from which it takes in water and nutrients. In growing a Vanilla vine in a pot, some support is needed for the vine to climb on and attach itself to. This can be a post or slab of wood, preferably a type that does not rot easily like cedar or cypress.
Vanilla plants prefer good bright light but not hot, noonday sun. However, they won’t grow well or flower in deep shade so partial sun is what they need.
|Vanilla growing on
Vanilla grows best in warm temperatures, preferably in the 70’s to 90’s. Cooler temperatures will slow down the growth. Keep temperatures above 60˙F for the most part.
It’s preferable to use sphagnum moss or coco-chip orchid medium or an orchid potting mix. All of these mixes help aerate the roots and give proper drainage.
When watering, the support and the soil media are watered so the air roots as well as the potting mix have access to moisture. Generally, the potting mix is allowed to dry a little between waterings to help avoid root diseases.
Vanilla orchids benefit from regular applications of fertilizer. A balanced fertilizer is recommended using a dilute solution at every other watering during the summer months. Even a constant fertilizer regime (used with each watering) with dilute levels of nutrients can improve growth (use ¼ tsp/ gal of a 7-9-5 formula). Be sure to occasionally leach the potting media with clear water to avoid fertilizer salt build-up. We have also found it beneficial to supplement with Orchid Myst, a spray that is used to enhance the growth of the orchids and to prolong flowering. It contains many micro-nutrients that keep orchids healthy.
Flowering the Vanilla vine takes a bit of time and patience. Although the flowers are slightly fragrant, it is the vanilla bean pod that follows flowering that is the prize. Plants that are grown in a container need a support and the vine needs to reach a height of 3-5 feet. Using a clay pot of 12 inches or more will give your orchid size, stability and also a healthy root system. Be sure to have excellent drainage with a porous potting mix and drainage hole in the bottom of the pot. The vining stem is then tied to the support to begin its upward growth. Keep it in warm temperatures and bright light. The vine should be encouraged to climb and tied to the support as needed. Offshoots will occur, especially when there is a bend in the stem, and these should also be tied to the support. In time, the support will become covered with vines (this adds up to many feet of vine) and once they reach the top and start to hang off the support, then flowering will begin.
What initiates bloom is somewhat variable. It is thought that a dry period for a couple of months in the winter, as well as the vine reaching the top of the support and cascading off stimulates the flowering process. The blooms appear on flowering spikes that emerge at the leaf axis along the stems and many blooms will emerge from this spike over a period of weeks, usually one at a time and each flower lasts only one day. To produce vanilla beans, the flowers need to be hand pollinated, which is easily done with a toothpick.
Disease and Insect
The greatest challenge as far as diseases and insects is root rot from over watering. Slugs and snails can also chew on roots and young leaves.
Overall, Vanilla is a rewarding, and at the same time challenging, plant to grow. Once it’s established, vanilla beans can grace your gardens with beauty and their delightful flavor.
~ Growing Tasty Tropical Plants in any home, anywhere. By Laurelynn Martin and Byron Martin, (Storey Publishing, 2010)