The Vanilla orchid's natural habitat is in the neo tropics and includes areas such as Mexico, Guatemala, and tropical Asia, New Guinea and West Africa and other parts of Central America. Vanilla is well-known to most people and is arguably the world's most popular spice. The orchid plant itself is a climbing orchid and sometimes also a vine and belongs to the Orchidacea family. The Vanilla orchid is both terrestrial and epiphytic in its monopodial growth pattern. The Vanilla orchid was known to the Aztecs for its flavoring qualities. It is also grown commercially (esp. Vanilla planifolia, Vanilla pompona and Vanilla tahitensis). It will grow in soil, and it will also grow by sending our aerial roots. On the orchid plant it will be these aerial roots that will be responsible to catch the water and nutrients that are required by the Vanilla orchid.
Amongst all the species of orchids that one can grow the Vanilla orchid is probably the most rewarding orchid, these orchids have gloriously beautiful orchid flowers that comes in chartreuse pale yellow and green.
All Vanilla orchid plants are vines and climbers, and several of them are leafless. The Vanilla planifolia looks like a bright green fleshy vine. The species name "planifolia" comes from the Latine for "flat-leaved".
The Vanilla orchid bloom time is usually mid spring and in some cased also late spring/early summer. The orchid flowers are quite large and attractive with white, green, greenish yellow or cream colors. The sepals and petals are quite similar. Each orchid flower opens up in the morning and closes late in the afternoon, never to re-open. If pollination has not occurred meanwhile, the orchid flower will be shed. The flower itself can be as big as 5 cm across, (2 inches).
The lip of the Vanilla orchid flower is tubular-shaped and surrounds the long, bristly column, opening up, as the bell of a trumpet, at its apex. The anther is at the top of the column and hangs over the stigma, separated by the rostellum.
Most of the Vanilla orchid species have a sweet scent. The flowers are self-fertile but need pollinators to perform this task. The flowers are presumed to be pollinated by stingless bees and certain hummingbirds, which visit the flowers primarily for its nectar. But hand pollination is the best method in commercially grown Vanilla.
Humidity and temperatures no lower than 4.5° Celsius (40° Fahrenheit) is required for the Vanilla orchid. A relentless Vanilla climber can grow to more than 1 meter (that is 50 inches) in a few years, a truly exotic addition to the tropical garden or greenhouse.
Light shade to shade conditions suits the Vanilla orchid best. In some cases the Vanilla orchid prefers full shade.
Water and humidity
Regular watering is a must for growing Vanilla orchids. Consistent moist soil is a requirement for the successful cultivation of Vanillaorchids.
You will need to provide support for the Vanillaorchid vines. Trees work excellent in this regard. Tree pillar such as dead wood of Teak and Iron wood is also suitable.
Wood mulch can be used in the Vanilla orchid beds. Be sure to wash out all tannin from the wood mulch before application. Normally mixing vermiculite compost - green composted manure to the mulch helps in root growth.
After two months you will see the root structure under your Vanilla orchid to be around at least 1 m in length with branches. Hair like growth on the roots cling to the wood shavings as a result. One needs to add further compost and mulch at three month intervals.
Pests and Diseases
There is always the danger of pests and diseases when growing orchids. In the case of the Vanilla orchid there is also an added danger: Handling plant may cause skin irritationor allergic reaction.
Potting mix and Repotting
If you intend growing your Vanilla orchid in a pot or container be sure to make use of a 3 ¾ inch pot. The potting soil is best made up of a mixture of well-draining humus rich soil or redwood orchid bark. The potting soil pH requirement for the Vanilla orchid is 6.6 to 7.5 (rather neutral).
When growing Vanilla orchids, you should be aware that the Vanilla orchid does not propagate from seeds. The Vanilla orchid flower is actually sterile and the orchid plants will not come true from seed. Propagation of the Vanilla orchid is usually done from herbaceous stem cuttings.
When growing Vanilla orchids you need to bear in mind that the plants, depending on the different orchid species within the Vanilla orchid genus you are cultivating, can reach incredible heights.
Some Vanilla orchid species grow to between 3.5 and 4.5 meters (12 and 15 feet). Other Vanilla orchids species can reach heights of over 12 meters (that is a whopping 40 feet) and anywhere in between these two extremes. The Vanilla crop is established by planting in situ shoot cuttings of 60 to 100 cm lengths. You will also be considered well-advised to space your Vanilla orchid plants 1.2 to 1.8 meters apart (4 to 6 feet apart). When measured the vines itself can be up to 35 meters in length. That is almost 90 feet long!
General tips when growing Vanilla orchids
- It is necessary to keep your Vanilla orchid inside or in a greenhouse in winter.
- Vanilla, the spice, is the fully grown fruit of the orchid Vanilla fragrans harvested before it is fully ripe; then it is fermented and cured.
- The orchid fruits (pods) are about 30 to 45 cm (6 to 9 inches) long and usually referred to as Vanilla beans.
- The Vanilla orchid plants will start producing fruit only when it is mature, generally larger than 3 meters (10 feet).
- Requires consistently moist soil; do not let dry out between watering applications.
- The Vanilla orchid plant lends itself to indoor cultivation and is an evergreen orchid plant. (No shedding of the leaves).
- The Vanilla orchid species are used as nutrition by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including Hypercompe eridanus and Hypercompe icasia.
- The Vanilla planifolia orchid is the only orchid used for industrial purposes (in the food industry and in the cosmetic industry).
- In the first season of its orchid cultivation, 100 to 150 flowers may be hand-pollinated to set pods, with an annual yield increase, and Vanilla orchid vines can produce heavily for seven to eight years. Healthy Vanilla vines may bear as many as 1000 flowers, which only last one day each.
Vanilla orchid species
There are numerous different species of Vanilla orchids that you can grow. The following are examples of the more popular Vanilla orchid species together with common names of each species:
- Vanilla aphylla: Leafless Vanilla orchid.
- Vanilla barbellata: Small Bearded Vanilla Orchid, Wormvine Orchid, Leafless Vanilla Orchid, Snake Orchid.
- Vanilla chamissonis: Chamisso's Vanilla Orchid.
- Vanilla claviculata: Green Withe Vanilla Orchid.
- Vanilla dilloniana: Leafless Vanilla Orchid.
- Vanilla edwallii: Edwall's Vanilla Orchid.
- Vanilla mexicana: Mexican Vanilla Orchid.
- Vanilla odorata: Inflated Vanilla Orchid.
- Vanilla phaeantha: Leafy Vanilla.
- Vanilla planifolia: Vanilla Orchid, Flat-plane Leaved Vanilla Orchid, West Indian Vanilla Orchid.
- Vanilla poitaei: Poit's Vanilla Orchid.
- Vanilla siamensis: Thai Vanilla Orchid.