VANILLA - 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 fifteen years 2000 - 2015.

NOTE: 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.

Vanilla 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. 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.

Vanilla - 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 - Some History

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.

Vanilla planifoliaIn 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.

Vanilla planifolia 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 ©

Plants were 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 - The Aphrodisiac Vanilla pods

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.

Vanilla pods or beans ready to be harvested and begin the long curing process. Photo: V.K. Jagannathan ©

Vanilla - The Orchid

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.

Other commercially 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.

Vanilla - The Flower

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.

The individual 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.

The Vanilla 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.)

Vanilla - The Bean

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.

Vanilla - Cultural Needs

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)

Vanilla 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 these figures.

Vanilla 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.

Vanilla - 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 variants.

Pure Vanilla 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.

In researching 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.

Vanilla - 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:

  1. An arrangement of Dendrobium orchid sprays, for the eyes;
  2. Vanilla scented candles, for the nose;
  3. Chocolates served with Vanilla Tea, for the taste buds;
  4. Massage Oil with Vanilla extract, for touch; and
  5. Your favourite romantic music, for the ears (not Richard Clayderman please!).

Vanilla - The Uses

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.

For sauces, 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.

For Crème 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 dessert.

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:

Greg Allikas, 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

V.K. (Jags) Jagannathan, Orchids Asia, New Bombay, India.

Colin Hamilton, Rockhampton, Qld.

Reprinted from "Orchids Australia", August 2000.  Amended May 2005  © Australian Orchid Council Inc.