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   In the holiday season in many parts of the world Christmas, Chanukah and Kwazana are celebrated with much joy. This is also the time of year when a lot of us love to bake those wonderful holiday goodies like cakes, cookies, and mouth watering candy treats that fill our kitchens with an unbelievable yummy smell.
   There is a very special ingredient that is part of most holiday treats that make them smell and taste so good. The ingredient is vanilla. Most of us have heard that this marvelous ingredient comes from a bean, but were does the bean come from?
   Would you believe that the vanilla bean comes from an orchid? There are over 50 species of Vanilla orchids, but only three are primarily used in commercial growing of the vanilla bean -- V. pompona, V. tahitensis and, the most important one, V. planifolia (also known as V. fragrans).

    The vanilla orchids are a group of very interesting orchids. Some can reach heights of over 27 meters as they climb and branch out. Some have leaves and others are essentially leafless. These orchids begin as a terrestrial plant when they are young but as they mature and climb up a tree, they eventually lose contact with the soil and become epiphytic, growing roots to cling to their host (the orchid does not feed off the tree like a parasite, it merely uses the tree for support).

   The vanilla blooms are often over 3" in size. The bloom is very pretty with wide sepals and petals but short lasting. The blooms of V. planiflolia, are greenish yellow and are 2 1/2" long. There can be over 75 blooms in a cluster (normally there are around 20). Only one flower in the cluster opens each day but with the orchid producing numerous blooms, the blooming period can last for months. The flowers open in the morning and close in the evening.
Vanilla Flower

    It was first commercially produced in Madagascar in 1873. Madagascar is still the world's largest producer of vanilla beans but Vanilla is also a very important crop in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Tahiti, and Hawaii as well.
   The plantation owners can not depend everywhere on the natural pollinators, which are honeybees of the Melipona genus. At such plantations each Vanilla flower is hand-pollinated using a wooden needle to insure that a bean is produced. The pollination process requires skill, because over-pollination of the blooms may kill the plant. Once pollinated, the flower produces a long narrow bean about 12-15 cm long. The fruits mature in six weeks and are ready for harvesting in about four months.
   The vanilla beans are then harvested and cured much like the cocoa bean by sun drying, soaking in hot water, or baked in ovens. Curing can sometimes take up to six months. During the curing process, a white crystal vanillin develops where the flavor and aroma we are all familiar with is produced. Cutting the beans into small pieces and soaking them in hot alcohol makes vanilla extract. The word "Vainilla" is Spanish for "little pods."
   The United States is now the primary consumer of the vanilla extract. The major constituent of the aromatic compounds responsible for the flavor present in vanilla extract is vanillin, first isolated from the vanilla beans by Gobley in 1858.
   The Aztecs in Mexico used vanilla long before the arrivals of the Europeans. As far back as the 1500's, Aztecs made a chocolate drink from cocoa beans called Tlilxochitl which was flavored using ground vanilla beans.
   If you ever visitd Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, you will find a very old decapitated cedar tree trunk that is over 700 years old. It is said that Hernan Cortes and Atahualpa met under this tree and Cortes was presented each a cup of vanilla flavored "chocolatl" (chocolate) served in beautiful large gold cups. This was the first time a European tasted vanilla. The discovery was added to the Judeo--Christian culinary culture.
   I am sure by now you are saying, "can I grow this fascinating orchid?" The answer is yes -- if you can provide the requirements they need. There are many different species to chose from so selecting the species you want to grow will be the first step.

   The most commonly grown are:  
  • V. imperialis (very easy to grow)
  • V. planiflolia (most popular)
  • V. pompona
  • V. tahitensis
  • Vanilla walkeriae (a Hybrid)
   The main thing to remember is these orchids are vines and they can climb to over 100 feet in length and need to have some kind of support to grow to. They like warm moist air and temperature of 60-65 oF (16 C-18 oC) during the day and 70-80 oF (21 oC-29 oC) at night.
   Humidity needs to be at least 40 percent. The orchid requires at least four hours of bright sunlight every day, but make sure the sunlight doesn't burn the leaves.
A very good potting mix is  
  • 2 parts each of coarse peat moss and sandy loam
  • 1 part perlite
  • 1 part orchid bark
   Vanillas are very susceptible to various bacterial rots so make sure you keep the media moist but not wet. (wet=dripping water, moist=damp not dry). Keep the mix moist (not wet) all year and fertilize at 1/2 strength with a balanced fertilizer twice a month.
   Propagation is very easy in this genus. Cuttings of at least 2 meters long pieces with 8-12 leaf nodes, preferably with roots attached can give you a plant that could bloom in a year. Place in moist sand mixed with Sphagnum moss and keep moist. Visit my Orchid Nights site and read more there.