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Growing Vanilla by Paul Prociv   

Growing the vines, pollinating and harvesting are the easy bits; the tricky part comes when you’re trying to deal with pod fermentation, balancing their need for warmth and humidity while at the same time avoiding fungal overgrowth (mould) or desiccation, which can reduce them to useless, non-fragrant mummified sticks (sadly, the state of many vanilla pods I’ve seen on sale in shops here).  I can understand that in a commercial setting (as is done in Mexico, and as we saw in Mauritius and Madagascar), with large numbers of vines, it’s most convenient to harvest synchronously, i.e. at 6 months, when the pods are still green, although fully developed, and that’s when the ripening process has to be triggered by immersing them in hot water.  I’ve tried water at 70ºC (starting to steam), and water at 100ºC (i.e. straight after boiling), either immersing the pods just for a minute, or for up to 3 minutes, but can’t tell you which works best – of course it depends on the volume of water, and the quantity of pods, but sometimes they go brown afterwards and sometimes not.  Obviously, one needs to do a well-controlled experiment, which will require huge volumes of vanilla pods (the most I ever produced was in our last year in Brisbane, when we harvested about 1kg, but I didn’t have the time or inclination then to fiddle about with them).

As an amateur, small-volume grower, I found that a more reliable (and controllable, given my non-access to a humidity chamber) method was to sun-ripen the pods, by collecting them as soon as they started to yellow at the tip, but before they split (fungus gets in readily by that stage), and leaving them all day in the full sun in a black plastic bag (for maximal heating) – not effective if you have rain or overcast weather!  I’d take them out of the bag each night, then replace in the sun the following morning, first making sure to dry the inside of the bag.  Most would take only a few days to fully ripen (i.e. go dark brown), but others would take longer.  This went on continuously while harvesting, with new pods being added daily as they were picked from vines, while older pods that had turned brown and started to go aromatic being removed and transferred to a large (A4) manilla (or any other paper, I suppose) envelope for long-term storage in a dark cupboard.  This ensured that they didn’t get frankly wet from condensation (as happens inside plastic bags), but the big problem then was that they dried out too fast – hence, the envelope containing those ripening pods was itself then wrapped up inside a plastic bag, and inspected pretty frequently (once or twice weekly) to make sure none of the pods had gone mouldy.  This way, most of them ripened adequately and slowly, without drying right out, although I was never sure exactly when they were ready to use.  However, their fragrance seemed to grow stronger with time, and they gradually shrank and became rubbery without fully drying out; when they seemed good enough, I’d just take them out of the envelope and store them in alcohol.  Originally, I had 100% AR grade ethanol (almost impossible to obtain these days), but now I simply keep them, just covered, in cheap vodka in a screw-capped glass jar.  My last lot is 4 years old, and still strongly perfumed!  For use, you can either decant the required amount of perfumed vodka (making sure to replace it, so the remaining pods don’t dry out), or take out the pods you need.  

As mentioned, I think we have only Vanilla planifolia in Australia, and I’d love to get hold of V. tahitiensis, which supposedly is in PNG.  When I was there a couple of years ago, the vanilla vines and flowers looked just like ours, but the ripe pods are supposed to have a different smell and flavour.  I have read somewhere that not all authorities accept them to be separate species. 

Recipes:  Now you know how to get your beans, what can you do with them?

Paul says he uses it in practically everything: Add it to your oatmeal when you soak it overnight. He and Melissa add it to Chicken. Break open the pod by just crushing it up a little and add it to your coffee pot where it is filtered.

Add it to sweets.

Cultivation of the Vanilla Orchid by Hal Young 

The Vanilla plant has been classified as a member of a sub-family of the Orchidacea but differs from most other orchids in many respects and some botanists have suggested it should be placed in a family of its own. It has an unusual habit in being a vine, and the genus Galeola which grows in our rainforests is one of its close relatives. For practical purposes of cultivation it can be treated as an epiphytic orchid which grow on the trunks and branches of trees usually in tropical rain forests where there is often daily rainfall and partial shade. Rockhampton Botanic Gardens in the sixties had one growing which was about 10 mtrs tall but it is seldom seen in cultivation as a plant on a trellis is rather difficult to exhibit at an orchid society meeting or show! Being a vine it produces a leaf and a root at each node at regular intervals along the stem and it is this feature that makes it difficult to keep under control. It grows well where its roots can get some moisture so they would grow well on the outside of mesh cylinders packed with orchid potting medium such as pine bark and charcoal mixtures so plastic super gutter guard should be ideal. Regular gutter guard could be used but a much coarser mix would be needed. Once the plant becomes established, the roots just hanging in the air would absorb water from rain or sprinkling and applications of fertiliser would also be taken up by these roots. When taking cuttings, it may be beneficial to dip them in Steriprune and place them in sterilised potting medium.  Vanilla does better in warm humid climates and may not thrive in windy or exposed situations. Most growers who grow Vanilla grow them under about 50% shade but they may adapt to more light. More light would require more water and fertiliser. If the leaves develop a light yellow tint, it is an indication that the light is too strong. On the other hand, dark green leaves indicate insufficient light.

The Vanilla Orchid by Arthur Buckman, Hawaii

Media – equal parts of bark chips, peat moss and perlite for small plants and cuttings. Larger plants do fine with just bark or tree fern. “Sweetening” the mix with a little agricultural lime is also a good idea.

Water   It is difficult to overwater these vines – keep aerial roots wet.

Sunlight   50-60% shadecloth.

Temperature  Like high humidity with good air movement. Dislike temperatures below 15ºC.

Fertiliser   Higher phosphorus in spring will help flowering and pod formation on mature plants.

Transplanting  Only during the warmer months. Train some of the aerial roots down into the media.

Cuttings   30cms in length with at least 3 leaves. Can be rooted in water or above mix. Sap is an irritant.

Trellising  Important to train at sharp right angles without breaking them.

Promoting Flowering  Pruning in summer, wire tie restrictions. An undisturbed plant will usually not flower til it has reached the top of its host tree and begins to hang down. This technique should bring a cutting to 1st flowering in less than 3 years.


Method 1  Tear off the lip (it falls apart easily) to expose the underside of the column. Collect the pollen with a toothpick from the hinged tip of the column (anther) or from another flower, insert pollen under the trap door (rostellum) located under the tip of the anther (pin back with needle if necessary)

Method 2 as above but remove the rostellum at its base with a good pair of forceps and push the hinged anther into the now unprotected cavity.

Uses  People commonly store in rum or other spirits to extract the flavour in cooking. A single bean split and stored in a cup of sugar also gives good results. The taste will improve every time you go to the supermarket and see how much you’re not paying!

Sheryl This is just a summary as information was covered in our other articles. Full article is in The Australian Orchid Review Oct/Nov 2001