Vanilla bean orchid (Vanilla plantifolia) is often known simply as "vanilla" because the seed pods from this plant are the source of 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 other types of 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 grows 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 its considerable demands. This species requires carefully controlled conditions and must be pollinated by hand in order to produce seeds. The vanilla orchid is a high-maintenance plant that is not an easy option for beginners to grow, and 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.
|Common Name||Vanilla bean orchid, vanilla|
|Botanical Name||Vanilla plantifolia|
|Plant Type||Vine, perennial|
|Mature Size||75-100 ft. long (outdoors), 8-10 ft. long (indoors)|
|Sun Exposure||Partial, shade|
|Soil Type||Moist, well-drained|
|Hardiness Zones||11-12 (USDA)|
|Native Area||North America, Caribbean, Central America|
Vanilla Bean Orchid Care
Like most orchids, the vanilla orchid grows best in bright, filtered shade and high humidity. It's best to recreate its native jungle habitat using a combination of temperature controls, pampering mists, and irrigation.
In its native region, a mature vanilla orchid vine can grow between 75 and 100 feet in length. However, you can keep your vine to a manageable 8 to 10 feet long in greenhouse conditions. Training the vine laterally instead of vertically allows you to grow more vine in a smaller space. A simple lumber structure is stronger than lattice (keep in mind that either structure will be obscured by the vine as it matures).
Vanilla bean orchid grows best in shade, but these plants will tolerate short periods of morning sun with indirect light. Avoid south- and west-facing windows, as the direct afternoon sun in these locations is too harsh for this species.
Start your vanilla orchid in a mixture of equal parts orchid bark and 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 grows its epiphytic roots, it will no longer depend on the roots in the potting mix.
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.
Temperature and Humidity
Ideal temperatures for vanilla orchids 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 to achieve desirable results.
Mist your plant regularly and make every effort to keep the humidity level at 80 percent. At the same time, good air circulation is required to prevent fungal rot.
Fertilize your vanilla orchid every two weeks during the spring and summer with orchid fertilizer. For the amount to use, follow the product label instructions. Light, but consistent fertilization is recommended.
Types of Orchids
Vanilla bean orchid is part of the scientific family Orchidaceae, which includes a large variety of orchid species (about 28,000 in total). However, there are a few types of orchids that are most recognizable and commonly grown as houseplants:
Your vanilla bean orchid plant can reach about 10 feet long when grown in ideal conditions inside a greenhouse. Pollination is an important part of harvesting vanilla, but this species does not need to be pruned in order to produce these healthy pods. However, it's easy to trim these plants to any length that suits the needs of your space if they become too long. Select a section of the vine below a growth node, then use a clean, sharp pair of gardening shears or pruners to snip the vine to your preferred length. Some cuttings can later be propagated to grow new plants if desired.
Propagating Vanilla Bean Orchid
While it is possible to grow vanilla bean orchid from seed, the process is very complicated and unreliable. Consequently, this plant is normally propagated via stem cuttings:
- Snip a segment of vine that has at least six growth nodes on it. Remove the two lowest leaves on the cutting.
- Fill a small flower pot with either moist sphagnum moss or a mixture of equal parts orchid bark, peat moss, and perlite.
- Bury the plant cutting into the growing medium (covering the lower nodes), then press the medium tightly around the base of the cutting.
- Insert a plant stake into the pot and secure the cutting to it with ties.
- Keep the growing medium consistently damp for four to six weeks until new growth appears. Once the cutting begins to vine, you can train the plant to grow on a larger trellis.
Patience is a requirement for those who wish to harvest vanilla from orchids, 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 within 12 hours of blooming by using 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 fall off. Small green pods will form within a week, eventually elongating into pods that will be ready to harvest in nine to 10 months.
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.
Potting and Repotting Vanilla Bean Orchid
Your vanilla bean orchid will not need to be repotted once its epiphytic roots grow securely on the medium of your choice (usually lattice or a structure made from wood). However, propagated orchid stems can be potted in a mixture of equal parts orchid bark and potting mix. Choose a pot that allows for drainage and airflow to the roots like one made from terracotta.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
Vanilla bean orchids can be susceptible to root rot in the high-humidity environment they require. Rot can be prevented by balancing high humidity with constant air circulation, which is the reason that greenhouses mimicking tropical environments are recommended for this species.
These 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 swab soaked in rubbing alcohol.
How to Get Vanilla Bean Orchid to Bloom
Vanilla bean orchids flower before developing the seed pods that are used for vanilla flavoring. Your orchid should bloom in the spring for about three months, typically beginning in March and blooming through late May. Don't be concerned if your young plant is not flowering yet; this species finally blooms when it reaches about three years of age. However, if a mature vanilla bean orchid fails to develop flowers, this is usually due to improper growing conditions.
Like other orchids, your vanilla bean orchid needs a very specific environment to thrive. Bright, dappled sunlight is required along with consistent waterings of both the roots and growing medium. Maintain high humidity in your orchid's environment, but avoid overwatering (which can lead to root rot). Your orchid may not bloom this season if its ideal growing conditions are not met, but by tending to the plant carefully, it can flower the following spring.
Once your plant is blooming, each flower will open for one day. Prune flowers after they close—also known as deadheading—to stimulate new growth. Your orchid will continue to bloom seasonally, and seed pods can be harvested within about nine months after flowering.
Common Problems With Vanilla Bean Orchid
Vanilla bean orchids are notoriously difficult to care for, so it's not uncommon for growers to run into problems with this species. You may experience the following:
Leaves Turning Yellow
Yellowed leaves is a common problem for vanilla bean orchids that are overwatered. This may also be seen with signs like dropping flowers, a wilted stem, or rotten roots. Air circulation and proper drainage are key to prevent root rot from overtaking healthy plants.
Brown or Crispy Roots
If your vanilla bean orchid is underwatered, you may notice similar signs to overwatering but with a different appearance of the plant's roots. Crispy, dry roots that begin to turn brown are an indicator that your plant is drying out. Thoroughly water the plant and increase humidity levels, especially focusing on its roots (keep humidity as close to 80 percent as possible).
Vanilla bean orchids are very sensitive to sunlight, and it's easy for this species to become sunburnt when exposed to direct light. If your plant's leaves become scorched or crispy, it's likely receiving too much light. Move your orchid to a place with dappled shade.
How Long Does It Take a Vanilla Orchid to Produce Beans?
Vanilla bean orchid plants begin to flower and produce bean pods at about three years of age. However, this process can take up to five years and requires consistent, specific care to be successful.
Can You Grow Vanilla Orchid Indoors?
Vanilla orchids can be grown inside of your home, but these plants do best when grown in greenhouses. Growers may not be successful in keeping vanilla bean orchids alive without properly simulating tropical conditions through the humidity, temperature, irrigation, and air circulation that greenhouses provide.
How Hard Is It to Grow a Vanilla Orchid?
Like other members of the Orchidaceae family, vanilla bean orchids are known for being difficult to grow. Experienced gardeners should ideally have experience with raising healthy orchids before growing a vanilla bean orchid.