Fairchild’s tropical garden column

The Florida vanilla vine, ‘a big climbing orchid’


Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

The vanilla orchid is a tropical plant that grows in the humid rainforests of Central and South America, Mexico, Tahiti and Madagascar, with a few native species in Florida.

The Aztecs discovered the plant in Mexico and used the seed pods in various ways: to aid in digestion, as an aromatic, and to flavor beverages for Emperor Montezuma. The Totonaca people of the Gulf Coast of Mexico were probably the first people to domesticate vanilla. It was originally believed to have value only as a perfume; its value as a flavoring for food and drinks wasn’t discovered until later.

Vanilla planifolia is one of more than 60 species of vanilla orchids that have been around for almost 500 years. The vines grow up to 30 feet long, and the plant takes seven to eight years to mature. The pale yellow or green flowers, blooming from April to July, are just as unusual as the stems and the form of this orchid. They open in the early morning and usually close by midday. They are fragrant and attract bees, butterflies and birds.

South Florida has a few native vanilla species that make useable pods: Vanilla phaeantha, Vanilla dilloniana, and Vanilla barbellata. Unfortunately, these unusual native orchids are listed as endangered by the state of Florida due to habitat destruction and over-collecting. This plant is an epiphytic orchid native to moist hammocks, swamps, and coastal mangrove swamps like those of southern Florida and the Florida Keys. They are very rare, and collecting them is not allowed.

Fortunately, we have the option of growing the legendary vanilla orchid in our backyards. Several selections of Vanilla planifolia that grow in South Florida are available in local nurseries. You can start a plant from cuttings, using a mixture of sand and potting soil. Set the cuttings deeply enough so that roots are covered, and insert a wooden stake next to the plant so you can tie the plant to it for support. Protect your plant by putting it in an area that gets indirect sunlight and is away from cold drafts. The new plant needs warmth and humidity.

Vanilla orchids grow slowly until the roots develop, which can take up to two months. The plants are beautiful on their own and also look great climbing up trees in a tropical landscape.

Like other members of this species, the plant begins growing terrestrially, but as the base rots away, the plant becomes fully epiphytic. Carefully plant it at the base of an existing tree. Oaks are wonderful hosts, but any tree will work. Like all climbing plants, the vanilla vine needs support to grow to its full height. The advantage of growing on a tree is the shelter the tree provides from excessive exposure to the sun and strong winds. The tree must have deep roots so that nutrition in the upper soil layer, where the vanilla takes root, is not depleted.

In their natural environment, vanilla orchids will climb some yards up the tree, thanks to their climbing roots. The vine should be guided back to the ground regularly to promote the growth of new roots in the soil. This method provides an ample supply of nutrients and triggers fast vegetative growth. It takes approximately three to five years after planting for the vanilla vine to start blooming. When successful, the flowers remain on the vine and a pod will develop.

This particular vanilla needs water regularly. Cuban garden snails are the biggest threat to their development. Control them by removing them. If the problem persists, you can use salt to keep them away.

The process of growing vanilla requires intensive agricultural management. The fruits, which resemble large green beans, must remain on the vine for nine months in order to completely develop their signature aroma. They develop these distinctive properties during the curing and drying process.

Growing vanilla is a big industry. Today, the orchids are grown in Mexico, the Bourbon Islands, Tahiti, Indonesia, India, Uganda, and Papua New Guinea. They are pollinated, harvested and cured by hand by farmers in a process that takes anywhere from 13 to 14 weeks. After the seed pods spend about nine months on the vine, the curing and aging process takes a further three months before the beans are ready to be sold.

If you’re one of those people who are up for a “green” challenge, then consider growing and producing your own vanilla. It’s a rewarding experience that will help you learn and appreciate the work involved in its production. Start from your own cuttings, which are easy to propagate, or you can find plants in local nurseries.

Noris Ledesma is curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

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