While we may take vanilla for granted, remarking about how it’s frequently overused, flooding and outdoing other notes in food, using it as a synonym for boring or bland, not many people are aware that vanilla (not the synthetic flavoring), real vanilla, comes from an orchid.
Vanilla orchids produce fruit pods only if the flowers of a certain vanilla orchid are pollinated within their brief, 24-hour lifecycle.
To get it to mature into the complex spice, which is the most expensive in the world apart from saffron, it takes nine months for the pods to develop properly, and only in certain conditions.
Vanilla orchids are beautiful plants worthy of any indoor room. The genus itself consists of over a hundred different species, and all are striking.
Fancy growing your own vanilla orchid? Here’s what you need to know.
At a Glance: What You Should Know About Vanilla Orchids
The vanilla genus contains only epiphytic orchids, which are those that grow on other plants. They are also monopodial, which means the growth emerges from a single point in the roots.
In the wild, they are capable of reaching an impressive 50 feet high, in order to get the light, water, and nutrients they need.
Don’t panic – they are unlikely to reach these heights in your home! They may get to a few feet tall, but you’ll need to provide them with some support for the vine to grow against.
The name of the genus comes from the Spanish word vaina, which means little pod.
Most orchids within the genus have a vining growth habit, anchoring themselves to other plants.
These orchids are not suitable for beginners, as they are very particular about the care they receive. They’re also not the most widely-grown houseplants. Phalaenopsis orchids and epidendrum orchids are much more popular because they are easy to grow.
Vanilla planifolia, which hails from Mexico, is the particular orchid responsible for producing vanilla pods. This gorgeous orchid is capable of producing these pods when it has matured, usually at two or three years old.
You’ll notice that vanilla planifolia, or the bourbon type vanilla orchid, has odd foliage for an orchid. This orchid has completely flat leaves, which is why it’s often labeled the flat leaf orchid.
Each one is capable of reaching just under 25cm long, making for a lovely tropical display.
As for the flowers, they appear in spring, flowering until summer. The blooms are a creamy yellow, boasting a rich perfume and reaching 5cm wide.
This orchid is grown on a large industrial scale, but the vanilla flavoring you know in most foods is a synthetic version, as the labor-intensive process cannot keep up with demand.
It’s extremely difficult to encourage a vanilla orchid to produce seed pods, so bear this in mind.
That doesn’t mean it is impossible, but you’ll need to mimic its natural environment as closely as possible in order to get it to fruit. As you can imagine, this is a little tricky.
How to Grow a Vanilla Orchid
Vanilla orchids are not the easiest orchid to grow, and for most types, a greenhouse is the best possible location to grow them in, especially if you live somewhere that gets very cold or dark during the winter months.
They are also a little more difficult to source, as they aren’t common houseplants. If you want a vanilla orchid, you may have to seek out a specialist grower to ensure you get what you’re looking for.
Sunlight and Position
Like the vast majority of orchids, vanilla orchids need at least partial shade. If direct sunlight is unavoidable, make sure it is morning sunlight, and only for a few hours at the very most.
If you give your vanilla orchid too much light, the growth won’t be nearly as vigorous as it should be.
However, give your vanilla orchid too much shade, and you’ll see any stems produced will be spindly, with fewer, smaller flowers, and perhaps no pods at all.
Temperature and Humidity Needs
Vanilla orchids are very demanding when it comes to humidity. They require about 80% humidity, which means they need to be under glass or near a lot of water for this to be achievable.
You’ll need to ensure that there’s plenty of airflow around the plant to prevent fungal diseases, which are more likely to occur in humid, shaded areas without proper ventilation.
In terms of temperature, between 75°F and 86°F is ideal for the day (or 24°C and 30°C). They do need to fall somewhat at night for the orchid to thrive, between 60°F and 70°F (or 15°C and 21°C).
When to Fertilize a Vanilla Orchid
Vanilla orchids are fairly hungry plants. Use a specially formulated but balanced orchid fertilizer every two weeks during spring and summer, using a very weak dose.
When to Water a Vanilla Orchid
Vanilla orchids require both the growing medium, and the support they climb up, to be kept moist at all times. Aerial roots, those that grow above the soil, need to be able to draw moisture from the air, so keep the humidity high.
Allow the growing medium to dry out a little between waterings in order to stop root rot. The higher the temperature, the more moisture you’ll need to provide the plant, so keep this in mind.
How to Propagate a Vanilla Orchid
The easiest way to propagate a vanilla orchid is to take cuttings from the vine, but you have to be a bit choosy about which part of the vine you pick.
You need a cutting that has six or more growing nodes on it. Cut away the two lowest leaves to avoid the whole cutting rotting away when you plant it.
Grab a container, and fill it with either a combination of orchid bark, moss, and perlite, or use damp sphagnum moss which has been responsibly sourced.
Gently lower the cutting into the pot, making sure that the growing media covers the lowest of the plant nodes. Secure the cutting by ‘tucking’ it into the media, firming it in tightly with your fingers.
Get a small stake to give the cutting some support, and gently tie it in with string, or whatever else you have to hand. Just make sure that it’s not too tight to rub and injure the soft tissue of the cutting.
Place the cutting in partial shade, somewhere warm and humid, keeping the ‘soil’ moist at all times. Within six weeks, you should see new growth, at which point you should give it better support such as a trellis.
How to Harvest Vanilla Pods From Your Orchid
If you are very fortunate, you may see your orchid produce green pods. If it’s going to happen, it’ll happen after your orchid has matured at about three years old, when you give it the best conditions possible.
Vanilla orchids will produce pods anywhere between October and March, so keep a watchful eye. Remember that they don’t appear unless the flowers have pollinated.
When you remove the pods from the plant, you’ll need to put them through a curing process before you can use them.
While it’s a bit of a pain, it’s more than worth it, and it’s worth mentioning that cured vanilla will keep forever, provided that you put it in an airtight container.
For six weeks, you’ll need to put your vanilla pods on a tray in the sun to dry, every day. At night, you’ll need to wrap them up in fabric or a similar material so that moisture forms on the pods.
Once you’ve sweated them for six weeks, the pods should be a rich brown, shriveling in places. You’ll need to put them somewhere dark and dry for another three months, after which time they are ready to use, or store indefinitely.
Vanilla Orchid: Common Problems to Watch Out For
Root rot is by far the biggest killer of vanilla orchids, because they need such high humidity and cannot dry out fully in between watering.
This is partly why so many people grow their vanilla orchids in a greenhouse, where they can get enough airflow, humidity and light to help take off some excess moisture, even just a little.
Always look at the roots and the potting media before you water the orchid. If it hasn’t partly dried out since you last watered it, wait another day or two and check again.
Spider mites are one of the biggest pests that can trouble a vanilla orchid. Using a combination of dish soap and water and spraying the plant or wiping affected areas with a cotton swab dipped in the mixture will help fend off infestations.
Types of Vanilla Orchids
Vanilla aphylla ‘Leafless Vanilla’
One of the most unusual vanilla orchids available is Vanilla aphylla, or the leafless vanilla orchid. It hails from Southeast Asia, including parts of Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and more.
It has a scrambling habit, and in its natural habitat, it can grow up to one hundred feet long! This particular orchid is unusual as it doesn’t grow leaves, only vines and flowers.
The flowers can reach between 7 and 12cm wide, flowering in late spring, summer and autumn, only adding to this plant’s dramatic beauty.
It’s a vanilla orchid that’s fairly easy to grow if you give it the right amount of light and humidity.
One thing which this plant absolutely hates is the potting or even the mounting medium breaking down and decomposing, so aim to refresh the soil every year or so, and if you’re using a wooden trellis, replace it if it shows signs of rotting in high humidity.
Vanilla chamissonis ‘Chamisso’s Vanilla’
Found naturally in parts of South America, this particular orchid flowers in the last few weeks of spring, through until early summer. It produces thick, light green leaves.
This particular type of orchid is named after Adelbert von Chamisso, who was a German botanist and poet.
Vanilla mexicana ‘Mexican Vanilla’
Hailing from Central America, Mexico, the West Indies, and northern parts of South America, the Mexican vanilla orchid is a vining type, each vine capable of growing up to a foot long.
Vanilla pompona ‘West Indian Vanilla’
Another type of vanilla orchid which is grown commercially for its vanilla pods, the West Indian vanilla orchid, comes from tropical parts of South America and Mexico.
It features long, glossy leaves in a rich green, and the stems can reach over 5 meters long.
Vanilla tahitensis ‘Tahitian Vanilla’
Vanilla tahitensis, or the Tahitian vanilla orchid, is an interesting one. It’s a hybrid, the result of crossing Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla odorata.
It’s also capable of producing vanilla pods, which are shorter and wider than those produced on Vanilla planifolia.