The Q&A Archives: Vanilla (bean) orchid

Question: How and where do I plant a rooted vanilla (bean) plant in the outdoors.

Answer: The vanilla orchid is an extremely slow-growing, finicky plant that requires constant attention. The first step is getting it to produce flowers, which need to be pollinated before they bear fruit?the pods that eventually become commercial vanilla beans. But for a V. planifolia seed to grow into a vine capable of producing flowers, it takes seven or eight years (a mere three or four if you grow your vine from a cutting).

Once the orchid flowers develop?delicate things with a beautiful greenish hue, whose lifespan is only one to two hours?they have to be pollinated, an extremely tricky process. Vanilla is something of an anatomical anomaly: It can?t self-pollinate, and most insects won?t lend a hand, either. The only bug that will pollinate the orchid is a certain type of bee that coevolved with planifolia for the role, explains David Horak, curator of orchids at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. That bee is indigenous to Mexico, so anywhere else in the world the job is left to humans. And it?s quite an undertaking: opening the delicate lip of the orchid, extracting the little wax ?packet? of sperm out of one tiny tube in the center of the flower and placing it in another tiny tube that contains the female organs.

Once pollinated, the flowers produce green pods about six months to a year later. The pods must then be picked and heat-cured (which releases complex aromas, concentrates the vanilla flavor, and discourages microbial growth). It takes three to five pounds of fresh pods to produce one pound of cured beans. Finally, the beans must be straightened by hand, then dried for several weeks to further develop the flavor.

Once the pods are dark and dry, you can open the pods and take out the beans to be used in cooking.

You'll want to grow your plant in a protected area. It needs bright light but no direct sun, in very well draining soil; bark chips if possible. Treat it as you would any other orchid and enjoy your new plant!

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