One of the most popular flavors in the world is vanilla. Vanilla extract is essential for baking and a delicious taste for most confectionery. This makes many gardeners wonder how to grow vanilla at home. Vanilla pod plants are beautiful climbing orchids that patiently house vanilla pods.
But growing vanilla pod plants isn't as easy as planting seeds and watching them take off. A vanilla orchid has specific needs based on the overall natural habitat of the vanilla orchid. You may already have an idea of how orchids grow, but don't let that discourage you!
It is possible to grow a vanilla pod plant in a controlled environment. With so many different varieties, you can have many types of vanilla flavors. Your own vanilla pods will taste much better once you have completed the planning and care of a vanilla pod orchid. Let's cover vanilla plant care and the different varieties out there. You will be on your way to growing your own vanilla pods in no time.
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Brief instructions for care
Learning how to grow vanilla is difficult, but doable. Source: zeegeezer
|Common name (s)||Vanilla, Vanilla Orchid, Flat Leaf Vanilla, West Indian Vanilla|
|Scientific name||Vanilla planifolia or vanilla tahitensis|
|Days to harvest||180 to 270 days|
|floor||Combination bark, peat moss, well drained|
|fertilizer||High nitrogen content when active, full spectrum balanced when dormant|
|Pests||Spider mites, mealybugs|
|Diseases||Root rot, stem rot|
Everything about vanilla
Vanilla orchids are beautiful flowers. Source: Lakpura
This piece covers the two most popular varieties of vanilla plants: Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla tahitensis. These are commonly referred to as vanilla, vanilla orchid, flat leaf vanilla, or West Indian vanilla. Vanilla tahitensis comes from southern North America, where the Aztec peoples crossed two varieties into one. Vanilla planifolia is native to Guatemala, Mexico and Belize. Both were transferred to Europe via Spanish conquistadors in the years 1300-1500.
These are vines that use trees for support. They grow under the lower canopy of the rainforest in a tropical climate. The vines are zigzag and have elliptical leaves. After a few years of vanilla vine growth, greenish, yellow, or white blooms will form. The bloom lasts only one day. Self-pollinating flowers pollinate in this little window. If there is no pollination, the flowers fall off.
When the climbing vine ripens for a few years and pollination is successful, the fruit begins to form. They initially resemble small 6 to 9 inch bananas that take about 6 months to ripen. Aged pods are harvested and cured for extraction. Usually the entire pod is macerated and distilled in alcohol for flavoring. Some scrape the inside of the pod and use real vanilla to flavor all kinds of culinary confectionery.
Most of the plants used to grow vanilla extract come from Madagascar, Tahiti, and Mexico. In the wild, it can only be grown at 10-20 degrees north and south of the equator. Hand pollination is necessary in captivity.
Types of vanilla
Here are some of the strains that are commonly grown by curious gardeners who rise to the challenge.
- West Indian Vanilla (Vanilla pompona): a beautiful plant with large, glossy green leaves and long, thin stems up to 5 meters in length. Native to Mexico and South Tropical America. Fragrant flower clusters open one after the other and form long pods.
- Flat-leaved vanilla (Vanilla planifolia): One of the largest plants, this variety grows up to 30 meters tall. It prefers a swamp habitat or a tropical setting.
- Tahitian Vanilla (Vanilla tahitensis): This vanilla pod plant native to Tahiti has yellowish-green flowers that produce wider, squat pods than West Indian pods. This is one of the most common types of vanilla pod plant, and the vanilla extract has a taste that is different from other varieties.
- Leafless Vanilla (Vanilla aphylla): This vanilla pod plant is native to Southeast Asia and has clusters of three to four flowers that bloom in spring and summer. Unlike other varieties, leafless vanilla has no foliage. Flowers grow directly from internodes that are evenly spaced on the vines.
- Mexican Vanilla (Vanilla mexicana): This vanilla pod is native to central Florida, Mexico, and areas of Central and South America. As one of the most common cultivars, it grows stocky and short at less than 2 feet in length.
Unless you live in an area with year-round tropical conditions, you want a controlled environment for your vanilla plant. If you live in South Florida, the base of a tree can work in an area with light, filtered shade in the afternoon. In all other regions, plant vanilla plants in small pots with an orchid pot mix.
Make sure your orchid has a pole for climbing or some sort of support system for upward mobility. The container and potting soil need adequate drainage, as this type of orchids do not like waterlogging. Use a disinfected cutting tool and remove 3/4 of the lower roots. Then plant the rest of the plant and add your stake, stake, or whatever you're using to train your vanilla plants.
Some pods of the plant can split during ripening; dispose of them. Source: bdu
A vanilla plant can be tricky, so knowing what it takes to grow vanilla pods is important. Follow the instructions and you will be harvesting vanilla pods in less than a year!
Sun and temperature
A vanilla plant needs indirect sunlight in the morning and evening and bright, filtered shade in the afternoon. Too much direct bright light will burn the plant and damage the roots. Experts agree that the south side of a greenhouse shaded by a large tree is a good option. Since the USDA hardiness zones are limited (10 and 11 only) make sure you have a carefully monitored and managed space for vanilla pod growth.
Vanilla plants prefer a warm environment and do not do well in temperatures outside the 75 to 85 degree range. Outside this range, the leaves turn yellow and fall off, and the vines do not produce beans. It is possible to grow vanilla pods in a grow tent where a greenhouse is not accessible or possible. This may be a better option as it is easier to control the climate in a grow tent.
Water and moisture
This is probably what most people get wrong with members of the orchid family. You want evenly moist soil, prefer high humidity and good air circulation. Allow the top 2 to 3 inches to dry out between regular waterings. When the beautiful orchids start to bloom, allow the entire plant to dry out for a few weeks between waterings. Vanilla pods need at least 85 percent humidity. You can do this by inspecting the grow tent or by spraying your orchid with a spray bottle. A moisture bowl under your orchid can be helpful in greenhouses that do not achieve the required ambient humidity. A humidifier can also be a boon here. Vanilla pods need controlled, constant humidity all year round.
Just as temperatures outside of their range can kill them, lack of moisture and overhydration can also kill them. Also, use distilled water instead of tap water for irrigation. Water in the morning hours.
Vanilla pods need a mixture of half orchid bark and half peat moss. You can also use a whole pot of bark if you'd prefer to leave out the moss or if it's not available in your area. Use a well-drained mixture and a saucepan. Don't try to use poor quality potting soil as this will kill your plant. Keep the pH between 6.6 and 7.5. Give your vine the right environment to grow and you'll be reaping vanilla across the board.
Vanilla pods appreciate a highly diluted high nitrogen fertilizer weekly (30-10-10 NPK) when actively growing. Only fertilize when the soil is moist, as adding dry bark at the same time will damage the roots. When your orchid is dormant, lightly fertilize with highly diluted orchid fertilizer (20-20-20 NPK). Remember to only fertilize your vanilla between waterings when the soil is moist, especially in the spring and summer months.
Pruning and training
Unless you're ready to propagate your vanilla plant, don't prune it. Exercise your vine with a pole or fence covered in peat moss. Gently hang the vine on a nail attached to your exercise area if you don't have a pole covered with moss.
This plant is propagated using cuttings. Since the oils from the plant can burn the skin, do so with gloves and long sleeves.
Cut off pieces that are 6 to 8 inches long and contain two to three knots. Make sure there is enough stem at the base to push it into the ground. Leave at least an inch above the top knot. Put each cutting in the same type of potting medium and in a smaller space that you have your original plant in. Add enough water to moisten the growing medium and let it rest in an environment optimal for orchids. Remove the cuttings to look for roots if there are a few inches of growth at the top of the plant. If there is abundant root growth (3-5 inches of healthy white growth), congratulations! You have successfully propagated vanilla orchids.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, on the day of flowering, your vines will need to be hand-pollinated to produce beans. Use a chopstick or cotton swab in the morning hours to remove pollen from each flower. Then use the stick to apply pollen to the female parts of the flower that are hidden under a flap. You will know if you were successful in just one day. The flower will wither and stay on the vine. When it falls off, there has been no pollination. Green pods will begin to form within a week.
Harvest and storage
Properly harvested beans are split open to reveal the vanilla seeds inside. Source: Low
Here we cover the process of hand pollinating, harvesting and storing your beans. We'll also discuss how to sweat the beans and dry them for later use.
The pods begin to turn yellow and elongate as they develop, eventually turning a light brown color. After 6 to 9 months, the pods turn dark brown. When they're dark brown, it's time to harvest the beans.
Either let the beans ripen on the plant or remove, blanch, and cure them. Use a sharp disinfected tool to remove the pods, then blanch them in boiling water for a few minutes. Wrap them up and put them in a cool, dry place at night. Dry them in the sun during the day. Repeat for about a month, then store your beans.
Cured dried beans (i.e. Madagascar vanilla beans) will keep indefinitely in an airtight container. You can also scrape out the insides of the pods to make vanilla paste. Store it in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three years. Do not freeze or refrigerate vanilla as this will drastically reduce its shelf life. Pour used pods in alcohol or mix them in sugar for later use. Vanilla extract is also easy to make. Let the beans rest in vodka for at least 8 months, and voila! Vanilla extract. Homemade vanilla extract is unbeatable!
The pods turn yellow, then gradually brown as they ripen. Source: Dinesh Valke
There are a few things to look out for when growing this plant. Remember and you are ready!
Most problems with this plant result from over and under watering and a lack of adequate humidity. Maintaining the damp, but not muddy, environment that vanilla likes can be tricky!
The only two pests to watch out for are spider mites and mealybugs. They both suck the sap from your plant. For mealybugs, use a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol to force the white, fluffy insects to release. Neem oil or horticultural oil can be used against mites, but is also a preventative against mealybugs.
The only disease to worry about is putrefaction. Overwatering leads to fungal rot, which can kill your plant. If you notice brown, thin stems and oversaturated planting media, remove the entire plant, trim off the rotten parts, and transplant the cutting into new, dry media. Then add some moisture. Keep the air circulating and the media moist for rooting.
frequently asked Questions
Vanilla planifolia in flower. Source: mmmavocado
Q: can you grow vanilla at home?
A: Yes, in a controlled environment.
Q: How long does it take to grow vanilla?
A: At least a year.
Q: is vanilla easy to grow?
A: Not exactly. But it is very rewarding if you can help vanilla plants thrive, and even better if you can produce them.
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