- The World's"flavourite" Orchid
We have received
an extraordinary number of enquiries through our website for information
on how to grow the Vanilla orchid. These have been domestic
and international and for hobby growers and commercial cultivation.
I am not sure what the sudden upsurge of interest is all about,
but I think I have disappointed some hobby growers when they learn
the facts. This article has been, and continues to be, the
most visited page on our website in the six years 2000 - 2005.
This article was provided purely as general information on the
history, development, production and usage of this well known
commercial orchid. We regret we are not in a position to
advise on availability of plants of Vanilla
planifolia in small or large quantities either in Australia
or overseas, nor are we able to provide additional cultural advice
is an orchid - yes it is true. There are about 60 species scattered
around the globe, but most are not suitable for the production of
Vanilla beans, that culinary delight which is found in delicatessens
with a black, shrivelled bean in a plastic tube and carrying a very
expensive price tag. When I tell you what is entailed in producing
this bean you will realise why is it the second most expensive spice
in the world - topped only by Saffron.
- The Flavouring
To begin, let's clear up one thing. What you regularly use in your
kitchen is most likely "Imitation Vanilla", a mixture
made from synthetic substances which imitate the vanilla smell and
flavour. This often contains propylene glycol which is also found
in automotive antifreeze! It is mass produced and relatively cheap
but, of course, not in the same class as true vanilla extract.
Vanilla planifolia is indigenous to Mexico and may have been
used up to 1000 years ago by the Totonac tribe as a flavouring.
The Tontonacas still grow vines with almost religious devotion because
to them it was the gift of the gods. It is not uncommon to have
a few vines growing around their houses. These are watered every
day as if they were the Tontonacas most valuable possession. The
vanilla beans were used as a tribute to the Emperor of the Aztecs.
In 1518 the
Spanish Conquistador, Herman Cortez , met with Emperor Montezuma
while seeking treasures of the New World. He observed that the Emperor
enjoyed a royal beverage of vanilla scented chocolate, Chocolatl
(sometimes referred to as "tlilxochitl" or "xoco-latl").
Cortez was so impressed by this regal drink that when he returned
to Europe, he took bags of cocoa and vanilla along with the gold,
silver and jewels of Montezuma's fallen empire. Within half a century,
Spanish factories were preparing vanilla-flavoured chocolate. For
quite some time the Europeans continued to use vanilla only in combination
with the cocoa bean.
By 1602 vanilla
began to be used as a flavouring on its own - the suggestion of
Queen Elizabeth's apothecary, Hugh Morgan. From then vanilla soared
in popularity and became more famous than chocolate or any other
flavour known before or since. For more than 300 years after its
discovery by Cortez, vanilla was produced only in its native Mexico.
blooms are only open for one day and outside of Mexico need
to be hand-pollinated to produce the Vanilla pod or bean.
Photo: Greg Allikas ©
tried in many countries but the orchids never bore fruit. The mystery
was not solved until 1836 when a Belgian named Charles Morren found
that common insects could not pollinate the orchid. He observed
that a tiny bee, the Melipone, which is found only in the Vanilla
districts of Mexico, is uniquely equipped to pollinate the flowers.
The bee did not survive outside Mexico and so Morren developed a
method of hand-pollinating the Vanilla blossoms.
Soon after this
discovery, the French started to cultivate Vanilla on many
of their islands in the Indian Ocean, East and West Indies and Oceania;
the Dutch planted it in Indonesia; and the British took it to southern
India. Eventually the French took Vanilla to Reunion, an
island off Madagascar. There a former slave named Edmond Albius
perfected a quick and simple method of hand-pollination which is
still used to this day.
This was the
impetus of major cultivation in the Indian Ocean area. Vanilla
is grown commercially even further afield now and the most recent
venture I heard of was to go ahead in Papua New Guinea. Seventy-five
percent of today's production is from Madagascar, Cormoro and Reunion
islands. Scientists are working to improve the vanilla flavour and
use tissue culture to propagate plants.
Vanilla is a pleasant, aromatic aphrodisiac, and may possess
magical influences in physical energy as well as love. Old Totonac
lore has it that Xanat, the young daughter of the Mexican fertility
goddess, loved a Totonac youth. Unable to marry him due to her divine
nature, she transformed herself into a plant that would provide
pleasure and happiness. She became the vanilla orchid so that she
could forever belong to her human love and his people. The local
people still celebrate the Vanilla Festival at the end of the harvest
with dances and feasts.
pods or beans ready to be harvested and begin the long curing
Photo: V.K. Jagannathan ©
There are about 60 species but the one used for commercial purposes
is Vanilla planifolia (formerly known as Vanilla fragrans).
It is a robust, climbing vine producing a single leathery leaf about
12cm long at each node together with its roots which cling tenaciously
to its host tree or, in cultivation, trellis. The vine itself can
be 20mm in diameter. Vanilla planifolia comes in two varieties
- the plain and the variegated form. The plant usually does not
flower until at least 3 metres tall and it can reach a size of 20
metres and more. Very few orchid growers will have retained that
piece of plant someone gave them long enough to mature, let alone
see the flower. Vanilla planifolia hails from Mexico.
cultivated members of the genus are Vanilla pompona, found
in the West Indies; and Vanilla tahitensis which is found
in Tahiti. However there is another species, Vanilla barbellata,
a leafless form which was (is?) found in south Florida and the Bahamas.
It produces extremely small leaves which often quickly fall off
leaving the bare vine.
The flowers are small lily-like (or some might say like a skinny
cattleya flower) greenish-yellow in colour, about 40mm x 60mm in
size, and develop in axillary racemes. There are usually about 20
flowers on a raceme but many more have been known to occur. Usually
only one flower in a raceme opens in a day, with the entire flowering
period of the raceme lasting an average of 24 days.
flower has three sepals and three petals, one of the petals being
enlarged and modified to form the trumpet-like lip, and a central
column comprised of the united stamen and pistil. The anther is
at the apex of the column and hangs over the stigma, but a flap
or rostellum separates them.
The flower opens
in the morning and closes in the afternoon, never to reopen. If
it is not pollinated, it will shed the next day. The optimum time
for pollination is midmorning.
flower is self-fertile, but incapable of self-pollination without
the aid of an outside agency to either transfer the pollen from
the anther to the stigma or to lift the flap or rostellum, then
press the anther against the stigma. As stated earlier most of the
commercial vanilla crop relies on hand-pollination and it is said
that this accounts for half the total labour cost in vanilla production.
Peak flowering is usually late winter or early spring.
It is also reported
that topping of the vanilla vine will force it to branch and flower
earlier (after about 3 years). A good plant will produce optimum
crops for about 7 or 8 years. (This may account for the reason I
have never seen the old vine at the Rockhampton Botanical Gardens
bloom - it is probably too old.)
The seed pod develops over a period of 8 to 9 months, and to about
200mm in length. The pod is green, plump and still immature. It
does not have any aroma at this stage. A good vine can produce 100
pods per year.
There are several
methods of treating the pods to turn them into the black beans you
know. They are dipped in hot water for two to three minutes, then
sweated and dried, or the pods are spread on trays in the sun to
heat for two to three hours, and then folded in blankets to sweat
until the following morning. This process continues until the beans
become pliable and are deep brown (this may take several months).
The pods are then dried in well ventilated shade or drying rooms
for a further two to four weeks.
If you still want to try your hand at growing
and, ultimately making your own Vanilla, here is the cultural
requirements. (Not recommended for indoor culture due to size of
the mature plant).
prefers a partially shaded location. Remember it grows naturally
under the forest canopy, clinging to tree trunks. The temperature
should be warm (around 30°C) and night temperatures not lower
than around 15°C. Admittedly this is the optimum. As previously
stated it grows here but the minimum and maximum temperatures exceed
prefers a moist climate. The humusy soil or potting medium should
be kept evenly moist at all times. Humidity should be kept high,
and, as with any orchid, good air circulation is essential.
Extract and Flavourings
Are you getting what you think you are buying? The following is
a run down to help you distinguish the real thing from the manufactured
Extract liquid is made from vanilla beans, alcohol and water,
with possibly sugar added. It must contain 35% alcohol;
Natural Vanilla Flavour is a mix of pure vanilla extract
and other natural substances extracted from natural sources other
than the vanilla bean;
Vanilla Flavour is a mix of pure vanilla extract and synthetic
substances, most commonly vanillin;
Imitation Vanilla is a mixture made from synthetic substances
which imitate the vanilla small and flavour.
Artificial Vanilla, also called lignin vanillin, is a by-product
of the paper industry, chemically treated to resemble the taste
of real vanilla; and
Ethyl Vanillin is an ingredient used in imitation vanilla
which is three times as strong as artificial vanillin, and is a
coal tar derivative.
this article, it was noted that a USA website posted the following
warning: "Cheap Vanilla bought in Mexico can be harmful."
This referred to Mexican vanilla containing Tonka Bean or manufactured
from Tonka Bean which has been banned in the United States for many
years because it is poisonous and carcinogenic.
A Romantic Evening
As stated earlier, Vanilla is/was considered to be an aphrodisiac,
so here is a recipe to consider to stimulate all five senses:
- An arrangement
of Dendrobium orchid sprays, for the eyes;
scented candles, for the nose;
served with Vanilla Tea, for the taste buds;
- Massage Oil
with Vanilla extract, for touch; and
- Your favourite
romantic music, for the ears (not Richard Clayderman please!).
It does not need me to tell you that Vanilla complements
cakes, puddings, cream, ice-cream, rice puddings, custard etc. But
that high priced Vanilla pod or bean can be used in place
of that imitation vanilla:
For cakes, puddings
and sweets, keep a Vanilla pod in a jar of sugar to be used
for baking. Top up with more sugar and the same pod will perfume
the added sugar for up to a year.
custards and ice-cream, infuse the milk with a Vanilla pod
(stand the pod in the hot milk until a satisfactory taste level
is achieved). Afterwards the pod can be rinsed, dried and returned
to an airtight container. The same method can be used for syrups
and poached fruit. For a stronger flavour and authentic texture,
the pod can be split open and the tiny black seeds used in the dish.
chantilly, beat Vanilla sugar into the cream or infuse
a few tablespoons of milk with a Vanilla pod and beat into
the cream and sugar. Or for my speciality, Charlotte Russe, infuse
a Vanilla pod in the milk to make the decadently delicious
So there you
have it. If you still nurture a burning desire to cultivate your
own Vanilla orchid and produce the "real" vanilla,
you have some good beginnings here. Further, more advanced information
can be found on the Internet via a search engine.
I am greatly indebted to the following people for their contributions
to compile this article:
West Palm Beach, Florida, USA for his excellent photograph of the
flower of Vanilla planifolia.
Jerry & Karen
Sellers, Camp Lot A Noise Tropicals, Sarasota, Florida, USA
Jagannathan, Orchids Asia, New Bombay, India
from "Orchids Australia", August 2000. Amended May
© Australian Orchid Council Inc.