Has your four-year-old ever looked at you begrudgingly over a plate of veggies, and said, “I wish there was an ice cream plant.”? Well, move over parsnips and eggplant, because with some orchid-growing know-how, you can cultivate one of the most aromatic and intoxicating spices on earth for ice cream, coffee drinks, and desserts.
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.
An Ancient Delicacy
How lucky were the ancient Aztec people of Mexico? Not only were they the first to discover the delights of cocoa, they also were the first to harvest the only edible produced by the family Orchidaceae. It's amazing that the secrets of the pods from the genus Vanilla planifolia were ever discovered, as the fresh pods bear no flavor. Only a careful process of steaming and fermentation release the perfumed essence contained within the seeds.
Like many orchids, the vanilla bean orchid is an epiphyte, and 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.
Put Your Greenhouse to Use
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 this as well as possible using a combination of temperature controls and pampering mists and irrigation. Ideal temperatures are between 60-70 degrees F at night, and 80-95 degrees F during the day. The plants are not frost tolerant, which means those who don't live in a tropical climate must use a greenhouse to rear the plants.
In its native habitat, a mature vanilla orchid vine can grow to 300 feet or greater. However, you can keep your vine to a manageable 20 to 30 feet in greenhouse conditions. Training the vine laterally instead of straight up allows you to get more vine in a smaller space.
Planting the Vanilla Orchid
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. Patience is a requirement for those who wish to harvest vanilla pods, as the plants take anywhere from three to five years from cuttings to flower production.
Vanilla Plant Care
Wherever you grow your vanilla orchid, you must provide this large vine with a sturdy support. In tropical climates, a large tree makes an ideal support. If you grow your vine in a conservatory or greenhouse, a solid wood trellis can support the plant. Don’t bother with fancy latticework; a simple lumber structure is stronger and will soon be obscured by the vine.
Fertilize your vanilla orchid every two weeks during the spring and summer with an orchid fertilizer. Mist your plant regularly and make every effort to keep an 80% humidity level.
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. If you are able to allow pollinating insects access to your greenhouse, your chances of a successful pollination may increase. Flowers that have pollinated will wither on the vine rather than falling off within a day. Small green pods will form within a week, eventually elongating into six-inch pods, and are ready to harvest in 9-10 months.
Harvesting Your Vanilla Pods
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 six 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 air tight container indefinitely.