It contains about 110 species, including Vanilla planifolia from which vanilla is produced. It is the only orchid that is farmed industrially. Vanilla pompona is another species from which vanilla is extracted, but it is not cultivated on an industrial scale.
The orchids of the genus Vanilla are monopodial vines, up to 35 m long. Each nodule produces long and strong aerial roots with which the vine clings to its support.
The alternate leaves are short, oblong, dark green, thick and leathery, sometimes fleshy. In some species the leaves are reduced and photosynthesis occurs in the stems.
The flowers appear in clusters, on short stalks from the leaf axils. Up to 100 flowers per cluster, but usually no more than 20. The flowers are quite large and attractive with white, green, yellow-green and cream colors. The lip is tubular and surrounds the long, bristly column. The anther is at the top of the column and hangs over the stigma, separated by the beak. Most flowers of this genus emit a sweet fragrance.
The bloom is very short: from morning to afternoon. The flowers are self-pollinating but they need pollinators. In industry, the pollination is done entirely by hand, which explains the high price of vanilla.
The fruit is often called a pod but is actually a capsule that pops open when mature (8-9 months) to release the seeds. The capsule is oblong and fleshy, 10-20 cm long and contains numerous small seeds. Both the capsule and the seeds are used for vanilla aroma.
The genus Vanilla is found all over the world in tropical regions.
Tropical and subtropical rainforest.
Vanilla comes from the Latin vagina (vagina, sheath).