Vanilla has become synonymous with "plain" in American culture, but in reality, it is anything but. This truly exotic spice is derived from the specially cured seed capsules of a vine-like tropical orchid, native to Mexico. The greenish white flowers last a single day, opening just before sunrise and wilting before nightfall. If they are not pollinated during this period, they fall from the plant. In their native habitat, they are pollinated by small, stingless bees, but due to the particular anatomy of the flowers, pollination rates in the wild are low. In cultivation, vanilla must be pollinated by hand.
Begin in the early morning, while the new flowers are still fresh. Pull back the petals with your fingers to expose the column, or tubular, part of the flower.
Look inside using the hand lens to find the pollinia, which is a pollen-covered cluster attached to the roof of the column.
Insert the toothpick into the column and gently use it to pull the pollinia straight out of the column.
Detach the pollinia from the spring-like anther, and squeeze it gently between your thumb and forefinger to release the bright yellow pollen.
Moisten the tip of the toothpick slightly and use it to collect the pollen.
Turn the toothpick around and carefully use the free end to lift the rostellum, which covers the stamens. Now hold the rostellum back with your fingers, and turn the toothpick around.
Apply the pollen to the round stigma opening by twisting the toothpick gently. The drooping flower should remain attached to the plant and show signs of pod development within a week or so, if pollination has been successful.