The Exotic Green Vanilla Orchid Produces Wonderful Flavours and Perfumes.

The mysterious and magical vanilla orchid is the source of the wonderful vanilla bean, highly prized by connoisseurs world-wide. A pale green with creamy undertones, this fragrant, waxy flower grows high into trees which support its fleshy leaves and climbing nature.

Not as showy as its more flamboyant floral cousins, the orchid is nonetheless exotic and special for what happens after its flowering.

Beautiful pale green vanilla flower ready for pollinating

Vanilla orchids thrive in hot, humid conditions, doing best with about ten months of rain (up to eighty centimeters annually) and a dryish period of approximately two months for flowering. They do well in well drained soil, rich in organic matter, which also grows small trees or shrubs for support and partial shade of the vines.

Of recent years several farmers in Tropical North Queensland and Papua New Guinea have begun to cultivate the vanilla orchid, with considerable success, but most of the world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar and other Indian Ocean and Pacific islands as well as from Mexico, the Caribbean islands and South America.

Many years ago, when I first came to live in North Queensland I admired the strange green blooms growing high into the treetops in our rather wild rainforest garden but had no idea what they were. I later learned that there was a special knack to pollinating them if I wanted to enjoy the resultant pods or capsules (vanilla beans).

Of course, training and trimming growth to allow for hand pollinating is vital for a commercial operation, of which pollination is but one part of the very labour intensive process of producing vanilla.

In Mexico and South America bees and hummingbirds pollinate the orchids, which grow in a cluster of up to thirty flowers, with three or so open at one time. If un-pollinated they only last for a day.

Because of its structure and the absence of these specific pollinars, in other parts of the world where vanilla (mostly vanilla planifolia) is farmed commercially, hand-pollination is necessary and is usually done early in the morning when the flower first opens.

The basic method of pushing aside the rostellum (a flap which covers the pollen) with a sliver of bamboo or a toothpick and transferring pollen to the stigma of the flower, discovered by a boy slave in 1841, is still in use today.

Vanilla orchids flower annually over a two to three month period. If the orchid has been successfully pollinated the flowers will remain for several days. A tiny pod will appear after about six weeks and grow to maturity during the next six to nine months. For the best flavor, beans should not be harvested before they are mature. If left too long on the vine they will split and be of poor quality.

Vanilla beans

Pods will be a light green colour, between eight and twenty five centimeters in length and one or two centimeters in diameter.

After harvesting the pods individually by hand once they have matured and lightened in colour they are “killed” to prevent further growth, usually by steeping them in hot water for several minutes but sometimes by placing them in the hot sun, in an oven or even by freezing them.

Now another stage in this long and laborious process begins. The beans are alternately wrapped in cloths and exposed for about an hour each day for up to ten days in the hot sun, then stored in airtight wooden boxes. Apparently this sweating process allows enzymes to begin the process of developing the vanilla flavor and aroma.

Vanilla pods forming

Pollination of the Vanilla Orchid

Because of its structure and the absence of these specific pollinars, in other parts of the world where vanilla (mostly vanilla planifolia) is farmed commercially, hand-pollination is necessary and is usually done early in the morning when the flower first opens.

The basic method of pushing aside the rostellum (a flap which covers the pollen) with a sliver of bamboo or a toothpick and transferring pollen to the stigma of the flower, discovered by a boy slave in 1841, is still in use today.

Vanilla orchids flower annually over a two to three month period. If the orchid has been successfully pollinated the flowers will remain for several days. A tiny pod will appear after about six weeks and grow to maturity during the next six to nine months. For the best flavor, beans should not be harvested before they are mature. If left too long on the vine they will split and be of poor quality.

Pods will be a light green colour, between eight and twenty five centimeters in length and one or two centimeters in diameter.

After harvesting the pods individually by hand once they have matured and lightened in colour they are “killed” to prevent further growth, usually by steeping them in hot water for several minutes but sometimes by placing them in the hot sun, in an oven or even by freezing them.

Now another stage in this long and laborious process begins. The beans are alternately wrapped in cloths and exposed for about an hour each day for up to ten days in the hot sun, then stored in airtight wooden boxes. Apparently this sweating process allows enzymes to begin the process of developing the vanilla flavor and aroma.

A 'cured' vanilla bean or pod, nine months on from being a flower

The vanilla beans have begun to darken and eventually take on oily and supple characteristics during the slow drying process when they lose much of their size, whilst retaining moisture. This stage may last for up to eight weeks after which the vanilla beans are sorted and tied into bundles and ‘conditioned’ in waxed paper-lined metal boxes.

The whole labour-intensive process can take five or six months, so it is easy to see why vanilla is one of the most expensive spices in the world and why inferior imitation substitutes are so popular.

The ritual handling of the vanilla pods over such a long period of time means that the vanilla orchid is central to the culture and livelihood of those who are involved in its cultivation and processing.




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