I am a baker, and I love the smell and taste of vanilla. I was trying a new recipe yesterday, a pear skillet tart, when I had a thought. Could I grow my own vanilla? Let’s find out.
The vanilla plant
Somewhere in the back of my brain, I had the idea that vanilla pods came from trees. I was wrong. Vanilla is a genus of orchids, of all things! Originally from Mexico and Belize, there are three major (and several minor) vanilla species: Madagascar vanilla (V. planifolia) is grown in tropical areas around the Indian Ocean; V. tahitensis comes to us from the South Pacific; V. pompona hails from the West Indies. Most of the vanilla extract we find in grocery stores is Madagascar vanilla, because of its stronger flavor. A few species grow in southern Florida, as well.
Vanilla orchids are vascular, evergreen vining plants. Those vines can be 35 feet long. They climb trees, called tutors. It is common to see aerial roots dangling from stem nodes. Underneath their gray outer covering, those aerial roots have green chlorophyll used to perform photosynthesis, as well as the thick, leathery leaves. Each flower produces one pod. Vanilla orchids generate a lot of flowers, but pollination can be a problem.
Like many other fruits, pollination is a necessary part of the process. Madagascar vanilla flowers have both male and female parts. This should make things easy, but it doesn’t. Those parts are separated by a membrane. The only bees that can pollinate vanilla flowers are Eulaema orchid bees, found throughout Central and parts of South America. These bees are only successful at pollinating vanilla flowers 1% of the time, which doesn’t make growing vanilla financially feasible. Because of this, all of the vanilla we buy comes from flowers that were pollinated by hand. Each flower. By hand. They use a bamboo stick to lift the membrane, and then use a finger to move the pollen from the anther to the stigma. That’s one bean.
This process was discovered by an enslaved 12-year-old child, Edmond Albus, in 1837. Hand-pollination allowed vanilla plants to be grown productively in other regions.
Did you know that 95% of the “vanilla” products you buy are flavored with vanillin and not vanilla? Vanillin is made from lignin. Lignin is a component of bark. It is also the stuff that holds trees upright. But it is not vanilla. And vanillin is only one of the 171 aromatics that make vanilla so delicious. In 1996, the FDA found that products labeled as vanilla were made from Mexican tonka beans, which are toxic. And that “natural flavoring” found on many food labels may not be vanilla or vanillin. It might be castoreum. Castoreum is something mature beavers use to mark their territory. Yuck!
When it comes to vanilla, paying for a quality product appears to be a good idea. The reason behind the high cost is that these crops are incredibly labor-intensive. If that weren’t reason enough, tropical storms and crop thefts are common in Madagascar. It’s a wonder we get any vanilla at all! But we’re not finished.
If you were able to get your hands on a vanilla cutting, you would need to provide a hot, humid, shady environment. Temperatures between 59°F and 89°F during the day, down to 68°F at night, are ideal, with 80% humidity. Living in Seattle, I wouldn’t have any problem with the humidity, but those temperatures might be hard to come by most of the year. If you live in a hot, sunny area, you would need to use netting that provides a shade rating of 50%.
Vanilla plants grow best in loose, loamy soil with a pH of around 5.4. Mulching around vanilla plants is said to help them grow well. Your vanilla cuttings will take three years to produce pods and should live 12 to 14 years.
Vanilla pests and diseases
Vanilla vines are prone to several fungal diseases, including Fusarium and Phytophthora. Mosaics, leaf curl, and other viral diseases can also occur. Many of these diseases are treated with Bordeaux mixture and other less environmentally or health-friendly solutions. Beetles, caterpillars, . grasshoppers, slugs, snakes, and weevils also damage vanilla crops. Sheesh!
So, can I grow my own vanilla?
I found vanilla cuttings on Etsy for $30, so, yes, they are available.
But, after learning about all that goes into growing, harvesting, and curing vanilla (and that’s all before we even start making the extract), I’ve decided that paying for high-quality vanilla is totally worth the expense. You may feel differently.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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