Vanilla Bean Orchid Plant Profile

Vanilla Bean Orchid

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Vanilla bean orchid (Vanilla plantifolia) is often known simply as "vanilla" because the seed pods from this plant are the source of the natural vanilla flavoring used widely in desserts and beverages. While it's a challenge to coax this plant into flowering and producing the seeds from which vanilla is harvested, the glossy green vine is an attractive plant on its own.

Like many orchids, vanilla bean orchid is a tropical species that requires high temperatures and humidity to thrive. In its native environment, this vining orchid is an epiphyte that lives on a host tree without drawing nutrients from it. The vine clambers up to the treetops in a zigzag fashion, exhibiting long succulent lance-shaped leaves. Each blooming branch will bear one to two dozen creamy blooms, for a total of several hundred flowers on a mature vine.

Vanilla bean orchid is grown as a houseplant by serious enthusiasts who can handle the high demands of a plant that requires carefully controlled conditions and must be pollinated by hand in order to produce seeds. The vanilla orchid is not an easy plant to grow for beginners. Some previous success with orchid growing is beneficial. A greenhouse is also highly desirable, especially for gardeners who don't live in a frost-free climate.

Botanical Name Vanilla plantifolia
Common Names Vanilla bean orchid, vanilla
Plant Type Evergreen vining orchid
Mature Size 8 to 10 feet
Sun Exposure Part shade to full shade
Soil Type Rich, fertile, consistently moist soil
Soil pH 6.6 to 7.5
Bloom Time Seasonal bloomer
Flower Color Yellow-green
Hardiness Zones 11 to 12
Native Area Mexico and Central America

How to Grow Vanilla Bean Orchid

The vanilla orchid, like most orchids, grows best in bright filtered shade and high humidity. Think of the native jungle habitat of the vanilla orchid; you must replicate that environment as well as possibly using a combination of temperature controls and pampering mists and irrigation. 

In its native habitat, a mature vanilla orchid vine can grow between 75 to 100 feet in length. However, you can keep your vine to a manageable 8 to 10 feet in greenhouse conditions. Training the vine laterally instead of vertically allows you to grow more vine in a smaller space. Don’t bother with fancy latticework; a simple lumber structure is stronger and will soon be obscured by the vine.

Patience is a requirement for those who wish to harvest vanilla pods, as the plants take anywhere from three to five years to mature from cuttings to flower production. Once the vine is established and flowering, hand-pollinate the flowers in the late morning with a chopstick. Remove pollen from the stamen of one flower and place it on the stigma of another flower. Within a day, flowers that have pollinated will wither on the vine rather than falling off. Small green pods will form within a week, eventually elongating into 6-inch pods that will be ready to harvest in nine to 10 months.

Light

Vanilla bean orchid prefers bright shade and will tolerate short periods of morning sun.

Soil

Start your vanilla orchid in a mixture of half bark and half potting mix. This is slightly more dense and heavy than most orchid growing media. Your cutting or small starter plant will need this combination of excellent drainage and nutrients to nourish the plant while the vine develops. After the vine develops its epiphytic roots, it will no longer depend on the roots in the potting mix.

Water

Watering a vanilla bean orchid means keeping both the growing medium and the wooden trellis structure damp, because the plant is developing "air roots" that draw moisture from the air. Allow the potting mix to dry out slightly between waterings to prevent root diseases, but maintain high humidity in the environment, because this is where the air roots obtain their moisture.

Temperature and Humidity

Ideal temperatures are between 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit at night and 80 to 95 degrees during the day. These plants are not frost-tolerant, which means those who don't live in a tropical climate must grow them in a greenhouse.

Mist your plant regularly and make every effort to keep an 80 percent humidity level. At the same time, good air circulation is required to prevent fungal rot.

Fertilizer

Fertilize your vanilla orchid every two weeks during the spring and summer with orchid fertilizer. Light but regular fertilization is recommended.

Propagating Vanilla Bean Orchid

This plant is normally propagated through cuttings:

  1. Snip a segment of vine that has at least six growing nodes on it. Remove the two lowest leaves on the cutting.
  2. Fill a small flower pot with either moist sphagnum moss or a mixture of equal parts orchid bark, peat moss, and perlite.
  3. Bury the plant cutting into the growing medium, covering the lower nodes, press the medium tightly around the base of the cutting.
  4. Insert a plant stake into the pot and secure the cutting to it with ties.
  5. Keep the growing medium constantly damp for four to six weeks, until new growth appears. Once the cutting begins to vine, you can train the new plant on a larger trellis.

Harvesting

If pollination is successful, your three-year-old vanilla orchid will produce green bean-like pods from October through March. Good quality pods should be at least 6 inches long. The curing process is labor-intensive and involves sweating and drying, which contributes to the premium price of vanilla beans sold in markets. Every day for six weeks, you must wrap the beans in a blanket at night to facilitate moisture condensation on the pods. During the day, place the beans on trays in the sun, or under a heat lamp indoors. Following this sweating process, you should dry the now brown and shriveled pods in a dark, dry place for an additional three months. You can store the cured beans in an airtight container indefinitely.

Common Pests/ Diseases

Vanilla bean orchids can be susceptible to root rot in the high-humidity environment they require. Rot can be prevented if you can balance high humidity with constant air circulation, which is the reason why greenhouse environments are recommended for this plant.

The plants can also be susceptible to spider mites and mealybugs. Horticultural oil sprays are the best way to deal with these pests. Mealybugs can also be killed by dabbing them with a cotton swap soaked in rubbing alcohol.