Do you remember me telling you about my friend at a local greenhouse who gave me the voodoo lily? I saw her last week and she gave me a vanilla plant! It’s just a baby plant, so I hope I don’t kill it before it grows up to become a happy, healthy adult, perhaps even producing flowers or vanilla. Wow! That would really be something.
Well, as usual I had to go home and research the plant to see how to care for it. The first thing I learned was fairly important. I discovered that it is not an easy plant to grow. It needs conditions somewhat similar to its native tropical environment. In its native habitat, a mature vanilla orchid vine can grow to 300 feet or greater. I have some high ceilings in my house but that’s taller than most trees!
So I discovered that a person could keep them to a “manageable 20 feet” by training it to grow laterally instead of straight up. Hmm. Because they’re a vine, they can be trained to grow up a sturdy trellis or a pole and it can take anywhere from three to five years for the plant to produce vanilla pods. You will need to pollinate the flowers by hand if you want them to produce, but that sounds relatively easy to do and perhaps even a bit fun. If you’re one who loves orchid growing and would like to take your gardening skills to a whole new level, this may be a great plant for you. In fact, there’s a lady that would like to start a local orchid club, if there’s enough interest. I’m betting there is. I’m not sure what her name it, but I’m anxious to find out.
Because you’ll probably be using a lot of vanilla in your holiday cooking I thought you might like to learn a little bit about the vanilla that you purchase at the store. Have you ever wondered why vanilla beans cost so much? It’s crazy! Maybe the following information will help you feel a bit better about dropping almost $20 for 2 beans.
I’m sure by now you figured out that vanilla comes from a bean, but do you know that it comes from the orchid vanilla planifolia? This is the only orchid that is used in food. The orchid is native to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America, and can only be found growing 10 to 20 degrees north and south of the equator.
The word vanilla actually comes from a derivative of the Spanish word “vaina,” meaning sheath or translated simply as “little pod.” The Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez is credited with introducing both vanilla and chocolate to Europe in the 1520s. So now you know a little history behind the bean and you can dazzle your friends at Christmas parties as you share your vast knowledge.
I found that when they first tried to grow vanilla in other regions, it didn’t work because the orchid only blooms one day a year and needs to be pollinated by a bee that will not survive in other parts of the world. However, in 1841 a slave, named Edmon Albius, invented a technique for pollinating the vanilla orchids. He discovered this while he was living on the island of Reunion, where the vanilla would grow but produced no pods. This island use to be called Bourbon Island, located in the Indian Ocean just East of Madagascar, hence the names “Bourbon” and “Madagascar” that are often seen on vanilla labels. His method of pollinating the plants made the work quick and profitable, but what’s really interesting is that he was only 12 years old when he did this! I‘m guessing if he could figure this out I might be able to learn how to do it. Because of his pollination method the plant could be cultivated in other areas.
Today, the majority of vanilla comes from Mexico, and Madagascar. Other countries that produce vanilla include India, Uganda, Guatemala, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, Costa Rica, China and the Philippines. Vanilla from these countries is invariably much cheaper than Bourbon vanilla, with wholesale prices that can be less than half the price!
Because the vine grows so tall, growers fold the higher parts of the plant downward so the plant stays at heights accessible to workers. Bending them also greatly stimulates flowering. Because the flower only blooms for one day, growers have to inspect their plantations every day for open flowers, which is a labor-intensive task as they produce new flowers each day during the blooming period.
After the vanilla beans form and mature, they’re harvested and subjected to months of curing time and fermentation. This process includes drying the beans in the sun and “sweating” them on wool blankets, or on wooden racks in a room and exposing them periodically to the sun. This is said to be a bit tricky, and beans are frequently lost during the process. The pods are left to dry until about 80 percent of the bean’s moisture is lost. The result is a soft, shriveled and almost black looking bean, or pod. This is also the time the bean develops its aromatic flavor that we all know and love. I read that you can easily dry them in your home, if you’re lucky enough to have your plant produce.
Today, there are basically four types of vanilla that are commercially grown. Madagascar or “Bourbon” vanilla beans are sweet and creamy. Java beans come from Indonesia and are considered to have a woody and smoky flavor. Mexican beans have a spicy aroma and a clove-like fragrance. Tahitian beans are grown from another species of orchid and are considered a bit fruitier in character than the other beans. And I thought all vanilla was the same!
So that got me wondering, just what is artificial vanilla? I quickly discovered, artificial, or “vanilla flavored” vanilla is less expensive because it’s extracted from wood-pulp byproducts for artificial-flavoring purposes. Yum! An estimated 95 percent of “vanilla” products are actually artificially flavored. I think I’d rather stick to real vanilla.
You may discover some vanilla is labeled free trade. I found information that presented both pros and cons of free trade vanilla, but that’s a whole other story. You’ll have to research that and come to your own decision. The price is about the same for fair trade or non-fair trade.
Vanilla remains the second most expensive spice in the world, second only to saffron, and now you can see why. If you chose to use vanilla beans you should know that each bean contains thousands of tiny black seeds. Cutting the bean in half and scraping the bean yields a potent vanilla flavor. So what do you think? Are they worth the splurge?
This is just a glimpse of what I found out about vanilla and growing the vanilla plant. I’m thinking if you’re like me, the next time you eat a vanilla ice cream cone, use it in Christmas baking, or simply enjoy the fragrance of vanilla, you might be giving pause as you think about what it took to produce the experience. And wish me luck with my little baby plant. I don’t think my husband is anxious to build a greenhouse any time soon.
Linda Corwine-McIntosh is an advanced master gardener, commercial pesticide applicator, and ISA certified arborist.