The orchid known as the vanilla orchid, or "Orchid planifolia," produces the beans, or seedpods, that yield one of the world's most flavorful and popular seasonings. The vanilla orchid is native to the West Indies, Central and South America and Mexico. In order to make this orchid produce its bean, grow it in a controlled environment such as a heated greenhouse, and help the pretty white orchids become pollinated so they will produce their seedpods.
Plant your vanilla orchid in a small nursery pot with a drainage hole. Fill the pot about half full with redwood orchid bark and then set the plant's roots on top of the bark. Fill the pot with more bark until all roots are covered and the plant sits securely without toppling over. If you set your plant on a saucer filled with pebbles and keep a small amount of water in it, this will help to create a higher humidity, which this orchid needs.
Create an environment that has 60 to 80 percent humidity and where the temperature remains above 50 degrees Fahrenheit at all times. A greenhouse works well; you might need to provide a humidifier if the humidity where you live is often low. Keep a humidity meter next to your orchid and frequently check the humidity---increase the humidifier's output if needed. Make sure your orchid is never in full sun: the vanilla orchid requires filtered light.
Fertilize your vanilla orchid every week with a plant food designed for orchids. In order to bloom, this orchid needs less nitrogen than phosphorus and potassium: choose a fertilizer with an N-P-K ratio of approximately 10-30-30 and mix it according to label instructions.
Fertilize the flowers by hand. Wait until your plant has at least two blooms on it in order to be able to pollinate. Vanilla orchids live only one day, so watch your plant closely. Using a cotton swab, place it into the center of one flower, collect pollen and then insert the cotton swab into another flower.
Harvest vanilla beans when they are four to six inches long, yellow, moist and fragrant when you rub them lightly between your fingers. Blanch beans in water that is 140 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit, not boiling, for about five minutes: this prevents mold and rotting. Drying vanilla beans is an art: refer to Resources for more information. Store dried beans in plastic zipper bags in your freezer or refrigerator.