Vanilla is the only commercially produced orchid for non-ornamental purposes. The rich history of this plant and its exotic flavoring goes back to when the Aztecs used it to flavor chocolate. It has since been spread all around the world and is a common ingredient in many everyday foods.
Vanilla is a fleshy green vine that can reach lengths of more than 100 feet. Most species have thick, fleshy, oval-shaped green leaves, usually about 2 to 3 inches long, but the leaves on some types can reach 12 inches. A few leafless species of vanilla can be found as well. The leaves are arranged in an alternating pattern along the vine. Roots emerge from nodes below each leaf. Like most tropical orchids, vanilla plants are epiphytes, meaning they grow on other plants, and as a vine climbs a tree, the roots grab hold and attach the plant to its support.
Vanilla is native to South America, north to southern Florida and in tropical Africa and Southeast Asia. The commercially grown types are native to Mexico and Guatemala. Commercial crops are grown all over the tropical world where it is warm and humid. Madagascar is a major producer.
Approximately 110 species of vanilla exist, but only three are grown for commercial use: V. planifolia, V. pompona and the hybrid of the two V. tahititensis. The most widely grown is V. planifolia. Four species of non-commercially grown vanilla orchids are native to Florida.
Vanilla likes slightly shady areas with bright light similar to the conditions for Cattleya orchids. They need warm temperatures, about 80 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and no lower than 55 degrees at night. They prefer a loose, well-draining soil that remains evenly moist but not wet. Too much water will cause rotting. Humidity needs to remain constantly high, above 50 to 60 percent or more. The plants need some kind of support such as a pole or tree. Trees have the advantage of providing just enough shade to protect the plant.
Vanilla planifolia is the dominate commercial crop. It has a special relationship with a small Mexican bee that pollinates the flowers. Because this bee lives only in Mexico, all crops outside of the country need to be hand pollinated to produce fruit. Vanilla flowers last only a day and need to be pollinated in the morning hours while they are still fresh. After the pod matures, it is picked from the vine, then dried, fermented and cured before it obtains the flavor we know as vanilla. This production process is long and labor-intensive, making it the second most expensive flavoring after saffron.