Approximately 20,000 orchids belong to the family Orchidaceae. The vanilla orchid vine (Vanilla planifolia), which produces the vanilla bean, is a member of the family. The vine uses its roots to climb trees up to 80 feet high. In the wild less than 1 percent of the flowers are pollinated to produce the vanilla bean pod. For commercial cultivation each flower requires hand pollination to produce the coveted vanilla bean.
In the 15th century the Aztecs discovered that the aromatic vanilla orchid beans acquired a pleasing fragrance after a fermentation of several months. The Aztecs cultivated the vanilla beans from the 16th century to the 19th century for use as a flavoring, medicine and even an aphrodisiac. The Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez took the beans back to Europe in 1518, and they soon became popular.
The secret of the vanilla orchid's pollination was not discovered until 1863. In its native lands, the vanilla orchid is pollinated by the tiny Melipona bee. Because the bee is not found anywhere else, the vanilla orchid must be hand pollinated if it is grown in other areas.
The vine's best-growing temperature range is 59 degrees F to 86 degrees F. Guatemala, southeast Mexico, Indonesia and Reunion, an island off Madagascar's coast, are the major world producers of the vanilla bean.
The vanilla orchid vine must be 3 years old before it can produce vanilla beans. In the spring, the vanilla orchid produces small, greenish-yellow flowers. The flower lasts less than 24 hours. Pollination must occur within 12 hours of blossoming.
Each vanilla orchid vine produces about 100 pods. Pods are ready for harvest nine months after pollination. The pod turns from green to yellow when the bean is ready for harvest. The pods will begin to crack, which indicates they are ready to be picked. Each pod is picked by hand. Pods are immersed in hot water and than laid in the sun to dry for three weeks. Curing takes three months. Once cured, the vanilla bean pods are shipped to factories for processing.