Vanilla planifolia
Common Name: vanilla 
Type: Orchid
Family: Orchidaceae
Native Range: Mexico and Central America
Zone: 11 to 12
Height: 8.00 to 10.00 feet
Spread: 4.00 to 6.00 feet
Bloom Time: Seasonal bloomer
Bloom Description: Yellow-green
Sun: Part shade to full shade
Water: Medium
Maintenance: High
Flower: Showy
Leaf: Evergreen
Fruit: Showy, Edible
Other: Winter Interest

Culture

This orchid is a tropical plant which requires a warm humid climate. It is intolerant of frost. Best growing temperatures are in the area of 80-85 degrees F. in daytime and 60-65 degrees F. at night. Best location is in bright shade with tolerance for some early morning sun. Requires organically rich, fertile, consistently moist (but not soggy) soil with regular watering. Daily misting is appreciated. This vine needs a good support structure on which to grow. Light but regular fertilization is recommended. Plants may not produce flowers until reaching a mature size. Once flowering occurs, a flower must be pollinated in order for fruit to develop. Outside of its native territory of Mexico where flowers are pollinated by a tiny bee (a Melipone), plant flowers must be hand-pollinated in order to produce fruit. During flowering season, hand-pollination must occur daily since each flower lasts only one day. Hand-pollination requires some skill (rostellum must be lifted so that the anther can be pressed onto the stigma). When pollination is successful, a skinny fruit pod will appear over the next 2 months, with each fruit pod remaining on the vine for 6-9 months before maturation. Once mature, the bean pod is cut off the plant and cured. Curing is time consuming and lengthy: (a) scald bean pod in water for about one minutes to stop the ripening process, (b) sweat/heat for about 7 days by heating/drying pods in sun for several hours in the daytime and then wrapping the pods in wool cloth and storing them in boxes to sweat overnight, and (c) air-dry in hot sun for 3 months. Vanilla is the only orchid that produces an edible fruit. Vanilla is very expensive to purchase (reportedly it is the most expensive spice after saffron).

Noteworthy Characteristics

Vanilla planifolia, commonly called vanilla, is a terrestrial or epiphytic orchid vine that is native to Mexico. In its native habitat, it may grow to as much as 50-75' tall over time, but as an indoor plant it grows much shorter. Natural vanilla flavor comes from the cured seed pods of this orchid. It was known to the Aztecs for its flavoring qualities (vanilla seed pods), but was unknown to the rest of the world until 1520 when Cortez brought plants from Mexico to Spain. Over the next 300 years, no one outside of Mexico was able to get this orchid to fruit. Finally it was first discovered in 1836 that a tiny bee (the Melipone) which lives in Mexico was the sole pollinator of this plant. Unfortunately, this bee does not survive outside of Mexico, hence plant flowers growing outside of Mexico must be pollinated by hand. On the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar in 1841, Edmont Albius first discovered a reliable method for hand pollination, thus finally opening the door for global cultivation of this orchid. At present, 75% of vanilla beans are grown in Madagascar, Comores and the Reunion Islands with the rest primarily coming from Indonesia, Tonga, Tahiti and Mexico. Skinny fruit pods (6-10" long). Pods are picked when beans are fully formed and firm. Beans are then cured. Vines have (a) fleshy stems, (b) succulent flat-bladed, leaves (to 5" long), (c) aerial roots from the nodes opposite the leaves, and (d) yellow green flowers bloom from axillary clusters containing 12-20 buds. Each flower opens for only one day.

Genus name comes from the Spanish name vainilla meaning a small pod with reference to the shape of the fruit.

Specific epithet means with flat leaves.

Problems

No serious insect or disease problems. Labor intensive crop. Watch for fungus rot. Spider mites and mealybugs may appear.

Garden Uses

Commercially grown for production of vanilla. Also may be grown ornamentally.