Vanilla planifolia

vanilla orchid


Vanilla planifolia

Jacks. ex Andrews 1808

pronounced: van-ILL-uh plan-ee-FOH-lee-uh

(Orchidaceae — the orchid family)

common name: vanilla

The word Vanilla is developed from the diminutive of the Spanish word vaina, a pod; planifolia is from the Latin planus, even, level, flat, and folium, a leaf.

This Mexican orchid, the source of vanilla flavouring, is a robust climbing vine that produces a single leathery leaf about 12 cm long at each node, together with the roots that cling tenaciously to the host tree or trellis. The stem can be up to 2 cm in diameter. The plant does not usually flower until it is about 3 m tall, and it can reach a length of 20 m or more.

The flowers are small, lily-like, and greenish yellow in colour, about 4 by 6 cm in size, and develop in axillary racemes. There are usually about 20 flowers on each raceme, but many more have been known to occur. Usually only one flower at a time opens in each raceme, with the entire flowering period of the raceme lasting about 24 days. Each flower has 3 each of sepals and petals. One of the petals is enlarged and modified to form a trumpet-like lip, and there is a central column comprised of the united stamen and pistil. The anther is at the apex of the column and hangs over the stigma, with a flap (rostellum) separating them. A flower opens in the morning, and stays open for only the one day, during which it must be fertilized (preferably in mid-morning) if vanilla pods are to be produced. Although the flower is self-fertile, it cannot pollinate without the assistance of an outside agency. The pollen has either to be transferred from the anther to the stigma, or the rostellum lifted and the anther pressed against the stigma.

In 1518 the Spanish Conquistador, Cortés, while seeking the treasures of the New World, met with the Emperor Montezuma. He saw the Emperor enjoying a royal beverage of vanilla-scented chocolate, and was so impressed by the drink that he took both cocoa and vanilla back to Europe. Soon, Spanish factories were producing vanilla-flavoured chocolate, and for quite a long time that was the only European use of vanilla. Early in the 17th century, Queen Elizabeth’s apothecary, Hugh Morgan, suggested using vanilla as a flavouring in its own right, and it soared in popularity.

Up until about 1836, vanilla was produced only in its native Mexico. Plants were grown in many other countries, but they never bore fruit. In that year a Belgian grower, Charles Morren, discovered that the normal pollinating insects could not pollinate the vanilla flower: this could only be done by a tiny bee, the Melipona , found solely in Mexico. Attempts to introduce the bee to other parts of the world failed, and so Morren developed a system of hand pollination. Soon after this discovery, the French began the cultivation of the vanilla orchid on many of their possessions in the Indian Ocean, the East and West Indies, and Oceana. The Dutch planted it in Indonesia, and the British in southern India. Eventually plantings spread to Madagascar, where a former slave named Edmond Albius developed a quick and simple method of hand-pollination, which is still used today. The labour costs associated with thand-pollination form a large part of the cost of producing the vanilla.

The pod develops over a period of 5 – 9 months, depending on climate, growing to about 20 cm long. By this time the pod is plump, still immature, and green. It still lacks any aroma. A good vine will produce up to 100 pods. There are several methods of turning them into the deep brown pods used by cooks. They may be dipped into hot water for 2 to 3 minutes, and then sweated and dried. Another method is to spread them out on trays in the sun to heat for 2 – 3 hours, and then fold them in blankets to sweat until the following morning. This process continues (often for some months!) until the beans become pliable and have turned a deep brown colour. They are then dried in well-ventilated shade, or in special drying rooms, for a further 2 – 4 weeks.

Anyone wishing to produce his or her own vanilla pods requires a great deal of patience. It will take 3 or 4 years for a plant to grow large enough to flower, the flowers have to be hand-pollinated, and then the best part of another year is required to treat the pods. The plant prefers a partially shaded spot (it grows naturally under the forest canopy, clinging to tree trunks). The optimum temperatures are a day maximum of around 30ºC, with a night minimum of around 15º. The plant needs moisture – the soil or potting mixture should be kept evenly moist at all times, and humidity should be high.


Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2014
Page last updated 26th April 2019