Vanilla planifolia is the species most cultivated for the production of vanilla flavor for cooking, thanks to its high content of vanillin.
The flowers last only one day and in the wild, the probability of pollination is less than 1%. The plants are self-pollinating, so mechanical transfer of pollen from the stamen to the pistil is enough to form fruit.
In cultivation the flowers are pollinated by hand in the morning because the natural pollinator Melipona beechii, a species of bee, does not live outside the area of origin. That requires a lot of manpower and explains the high price of vanilla. Good pollinators can pollinate up to 1,000 flowers per day.
Vanilla planifolia requires a wet tropical climate and it can be difficult to keep it outside of a greenhouse in regions with moderate to cold climate.
Vanilla planifolia is a flexible vine and rarely branched. It clings to its support with its fleshy roots. In the wild it can grow to over 20 m (65′) in height.
It grows from the terminal button. The leaves are scattered on the stem. They are green, have a very short petiole, are smooth and lanceolate, 8-24 cm (3-10″) long and 2-8 cm (1-3″) wide. The veins are nearly invisible.
The flowers exude a sweet smell of vanilla. They are greenish yellow and have a diameter of 5 cm. They grow in umbels.
The fruit is a berry: it is elongated and contains numerous tiny black seeds. When ripe the fruit is yellow. The plant forms fruit after 2-3 years.
Vanilla planifolia is native to southern Mexico and Guatemala but is now mostly cultivated in Madagascar, Reunion and Comoros. Madagascar and Reunion represent 70% of the world production.
Vanilla planifolia grows best in tropical rain forest at 600 m altitude and an average annual temperature of 27 °C (80.6 °F).
The word vanilla comes from the Spanish name for the herb, vainilla, and is a diminutive of vaina, meaning sheath or vagina, probably inspired by the shape of the fruit.
The species name, planifolia, refers to the characteristic shape of the flat leaves.
Warning! Wash your hands after handling a vanilla orchid: contact with the plant may cause irritation.
The vanilla orchid likes a difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures.
Daytime temperature: 27-32 °C (80.6-89.6 °F)
Night temperature: 15-21 °C (59-69.8 °F)
Place the vanilla plant in a location where it receives morning sun and shade in the afternoon.
In the wild the vanilla orchid is usually exposed to light filtered through the treetops.
The substrate provides support until the vine grows. Then the aerial roots need regular watering and fogging.
Give water every 2 weeks.
It prefers rain water or non-alkaline tap water at room temperature.
At least 50% and ideally 60-80%.
Use a substrate rich in humus, but very light and airy. Once the plant is well established, it climbs up its support and gets of water and nutrients through the aerial roots with which it is attached to its support.
The vanilla orchid is a vine. It is therefore necessary to provide a support to which it may cling with its aerial roots. You can use the moss-coated pipes typically used for Philodendron or Monstera, so it will be easy to water and fog the aerial roots. They are found in nurseries, DIY stores…
Fertilize every two weeks with a 20-10-20 liquid fertilizer.
It is even better to prepare the solution in advance and spread watering over several days rather than give it all at once every two weeks.
Repotting is not necessary: Once the plant is mature, it gets water and nutrients from its aerial roots.
Flowering occurs in summer and each flower blooms only one day. If the flowers are not pollinated, they wither and fall. If they are pollinated by hand the morning, they can set fruit.
The seeds require the presence of mycorrhizal fungi to germinate. In the laboratory, they are replaced by seeding in vitro, on an agar-agar basis. This is an extract from certain species of red algae that is rich in polysaccharides.
And no, you can not germinate the seeds inside the vanilla pods you find in the trade. They have undergone heat treatment and fermentation before being marketed, they are dead and have no germination power.
- take pieces of stalk, each containing several nodes and let them dry a few days
- plant into a small pot filled with orchids substrate and the support to which they can cling
- make sure you plant the cuttings upright because they take root more easily from the nodes that were lower on the plant
- make sure that the substrate remains moist but not wet. Wrap the pot in a plastic bag or place it in a terrarium.
- room temperature: 20-25 °C (68-77 °F))