Vanilla is the world’s most expensive crop after saffron and cardamom. This is because there is no alternative to hand pollination or hand harvesting. The vanilla pod, which is black and aromatic when you buy it, is green and has no smell when it is first harvested. It turns black and gains it’s famous smell only after it has been properly aged/processed.
These plant is one of the most ancient orchids. The Vanilla genus contains 108-110 currently recognized species of vine-like orchids (hence the name Vanilla, which is derived from Spanish vaina, which means pod). The most widely grown species is Vanilla planifolia or Vanilla bean plant (flat-leaved Vanilla). Vanilla beans aren’t the easiest plants to grow. It’ll take trial and error on your part to figure out what works for you, as a gardener, and the changes you might need to make because of your planting zone. Here are the basics of growing a vanilla plant.
How To Grow Your Own Vanilla Beans
In it’s native habitat, a mature vanilla orchid vine can grow to 300 feet or greater. However, you can keep your vine to a manageable 20 feet in greenhouse conditions. Training the vine laterally instead of straight up allows you to get more vine in a smaller space. You can trim your vanilla, if it grows too big. By the way, this orchid can be easily propagated by cutting off the steam, and each cut should have at least one or two area roots. It’s fast-growing orchid, but it has to grow up to about 10 feet tall until it can flower, which usually takes 5 or 6 years. Flowers are greenish-yellow, with diameter 5 cm. They last less than one day. They open in the morning and close by the afternoon.
The vanilla orchid grows best in bright filtered shade and high humidity.
Make every effort to keep an 80% humidity level. Ideal temperatures are between 60-70 degrees F at night, which makes gardens in USDA zones 10-11 their best bet and 80-95 degrees F during the day.
The plants are not frost tolerant. Plant indoors in a greenhouse or your home unless you are fortunate to live in zone 10 or higher. Give your vanilla partial sun and put an orchid potting mix or sphagnum moss in with the soil.
Watering and Fertilizing
Like all orchids, the leading cause of death indoors is overwatering. Keep the soil evenly moist at all times taking care not to over-water at the same time. This orchid may not like it’s feet to dry out between waterings, but it doesn’t want rotten roots either. During the spring and summer, lightly fertilize your vanilla bean plant every two weeks with an orchid fertilizer.
Support for Climbing
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.
Over time the plant will need to be pollinated. Most vanilla plants are hand pollinated, as stingless bees would usually have pollinated vanilla plants. You hand pollinate by removing pollen from the female part of the plant known as the anther. You can use a toothpick to collect the pollen from this section of the plant. You’ll apply the pollen to the male part of the plant known as the stigma. The stigma will have a shield around it which will need to be peeled back to access it. The pollinating process is best if performed in the morning hours. When you’ve completed the process, you should begin to see pods forming within a week.
Harvesting Vanilla Beans and Drying them
Harvesting vanilla beans are probably the easiest part of the growing process. You can use scissors or pruning shears to detach the pods from the plant. You’ll know they’re ready for harvest when the tips of the pods begin to turn yellow.
After vanilla is harvested, the pods have no smell or taste. Curing and processing are needed to bring out the flavor and aroma. To begin the curing (processing), place the pods into boiling water for 2-4 minutes (you are blanching them). The blanched beans (pods) are then transferred immediately to a wooden box lined with a blanket, for sweating and kept for 36-48 hours. By then, the beans will attain light brown color and start imparting aroma. If you cannot “sweat” the beans in a box with just a blanket, you can also wrap the beans (pods) in plastic wrap. You can also try drying them in a place with low humidity and out of direct sunlight. This type of drying will take a few months.
Beans are black when they are dry. After they are dry, store them in a well-ventilated place for a month or two more until they reach their peak flavor and fragrance. It is a great idea to grow this plant indoors, however, make sure to provide sufficient care and optimal environmental conditions required for the growth of this delicate plant.