Vanilla planifolia

Vanilla planifolia is the source of vanilla flavoring. This vining tropical orchid from Central America produces four-inch, short-lived flowers which, when pollinated, produce long seed capsules, or "Vanilla beans," which contain the vanilla flavoring.

The genus Vanilla contains over 50 species found throughout the world's tropical areas. Vanilla planifolia and two other species are grown for commercial vanilla. Vanilla was first grown by the Aztec's of Mexico and they used it to flavor their chocolate drinks. In the 16th century the Spanish took Vanilla planifolia back to Europe with them, but could not reproduce the beans until they determined how to pollinate the flowers.



Vanilla planifolia should be obtained as pieces of vine two feet long or more. Great care should be taken when handling the fresh-cut vines, as the sap produces an extremely painful rash when it gets on the skin. The base of the vine is potted in a moisture retentive mix and watered and fertilized often. It grows best in bright light and warm temperatures. The plant will grow quickly and should be trained to a trellis or other form of support. The vine must grow for two or three years to a length of 20 to 30 feet before flowers are produced. The flowers last one day and must be pollinated by hand on the morning they open. In the photo at top is a freshly opened flower a few minutes before I pollinated it. Beside it is a flower pollinated two days earlier. Behind the flowers you will notice another dozen or so flower buds on the stem which will open over a period of weeks. The flower stems emerge from the leaf axils along the vine, and a couple younger flower stems can be seen in the photo.

The Vanilla Beans (seed capsules) are processed and fermented in order to produce the flavoring. The mature nine-month old beans are harvested and blanched in boiling water for three minutes. Then they are wrapped up in towels or blankets and kept very warm overnight. During the daytime they are placed in full hot tropical sunlight to dry out and then again at nighttime they are returned to the warm wrap of towels "to sweat". This daily routine is repeated for a month or two until the beans are dark brown and have lost four-fifths of their weight. At that time, the beans can be placed in a bottle of rum or vodka to extract the flavor, or they can be grated and used directly.