Delicious Scent & Taste: The Vanilla Orchid
Widely used in sweets, perfumes, candles and more, did you know the vanilla bean originates from an orchid plant called the Vanilla planifolia? The Totonaco people of Mexico were the first known people to cultivate vanilla orchids to produce the sweet aromatic spice that is so commonly used today.
If you are looking to add this exotic orchid to your collection, know that it does take special care. In its natural habitat, Vanilla planifolia can grow over 100 feet long zig-zagging up tree trunks in a vine-like fashion with dark green alternating 3.5” sheath-shaped leaves. Clusters of aromatic cream-colored flowers will eventually form fleshy pods that can grow up to 10" in length.
The vanilla orchid can be grown in a greenhouse under conditions similar to most other orchid varieties - tropical rain forest type conditions with filtered light, high humidity, and 60-70 degree temps at night and 80-95 degrees during the day.
The vanilla flower blooms just one day, opening in the morning and closing late in the afternoon. Pollination through natural means is very difficult unless you live in Mexico where Melipona Bees are found. Otherwise, you will need to hand-pollinate your vanilla orchid to bear fruit. Flowers that go unpollinated simply shrivel and die.
Worth the Wait
A vanilla pod can take up to nine months to mature for harvesting. Wait until the bean has turned dark brown or black and is showing signs of splitting before you remove the pod from the plant. Removing the pod too early can result in a less flavorful bean. After the bean has been harvested, you will need to either sun dry the bean or place it in hot water for several minutes. In either case, the bean will need to dry in a ventilated location for 2-4 weeks after the sun drying or hot bath to produce similar results to commercially grown beans.
Easy to Make Vanilla Extract
If you are lucky enough to harvest your own beans, you can make your own vanilla extract. Simply split the cured bean down the middle and place the entire bean into your favorite flavorless rum or vodka. Shake every few days. In approximately eight weeks, you will have your own vanilla extract. Wait even longer to allow the flavor to intensify. If you don’t have the patience to grow your own vanilla, try this trick with store-bought beans for a cost effective vanilla extract.
Buying the Vanilla Orchid
Most nurseries and garden stores do not sell vanilla orchids, however, there are growers online that offer these plants. Just be sure to purchase the flat leafed vanilla orchid as there are other orchids in the same family that do not produce the commonly desired vanilla bean.
The Totonaco people discovered this delicacy deep in the tropical jungles. Myth has it that the blood of two lovers had fallen onto the floor of the forest and from that blood sprouted a vine with beautiful cream-colored flowers. The flowers gave way to this gift from the gods that filled the air with the scent of love and beauty.
Some cultures believed the vanilla bean to have medicinal properties sure to treat headaches, indigestion and animal bites, while the Aztecs and Europeans believed the delicate spice to be an aphrodisiac.
In modern times, Vanilla planifolia is not only a pretty orchid to enjoy but also a favorite flavor for many.
Happy Blooming from Better-Gro!