Fast Facts Vanilla Orchids
Botanical Name: Vanilla (va-NIL-luh)
Number of recognized species: 110 recognized species
Origin: Mesoamerica, including Mexico and Guatemala.
Blooming season: Spring season
Color: Flowers of Vanilla orchids can come in white, cream, yellow-green, or light green.
Growing classification: Monopodial
While other orchid plants charm with their exquisite and showy blooms, Vanilla orchids are well-loved for an entirely different reason: their sweet and delicious flavor and fragrance.
Vanilla Orchids: Origin and History
Vanilla was derived from the Spanish word "vanilla," which means little pods.
For centuries, this evasive orchid plant has left the botanists of Europe baffled. They had difficulty identifying which plant the flavorful beans were from.
One of the earliest orchid plants known to man, the first ever mention of Vanilla orchids appeared in the Badianus Manuscript of 1552, an herbal book of the ancient Aztecs, which based on Tim Ecott’s book, Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid, was secretly hidden in the Vatican library until the 20th century.
In it, the Aztecs referred to Vanilla orchid in their native tongue, Nahuatl, as tlilxochitl. They wrote recipes calling the use of the orchid plant to cure an infection and for flavoring chocolate. The well-hidden secret was revealed to the whole world after Spanish colonization and has even reached Queen Elizabeth I, who reportedly loved vanilla puddings later in life.
The orchid genus was established in 1754 by Plumier, based on J. Miller. At least 100 Vanilla orchid species are scattered all over the globe and can be found in both the Old World and the New World tropics. Although many experts claim that they originated from Mesoamerica, including Mexico and Guatemala.
Plant Description Vanilla Orchids
Credit: Plants of the World Online
Vanilla orchids are monopodial in growth. They are climbing vines that branch out and have little foliage and roots at each node that attach themselves to trunks of trees or a stake. The vine can go up to 30 feet long.
The flowers of a Vanilla orchid shoot off from dense raceme type inflorescence, which can bear up to two dozen flowers each and which bloom in the morning. They typically don’t last long but bloom in succession for weeks up to months. Depending on the orchid species or variety, the blooms of Vanilla orchids can be white, cream, yellow-green, or light green. Some may have a trumpet-shaped lip similar to that of a Cattleya orchid.
In a natural setting, these orchid flowers are pollinated by bees and hummingbirds. Commercial orchid growers, however, do hand pollination, which is a more effective method.
On its website, Kew Science wrote that Chris Ryan of Kew’s Tropical Nursery has found that propagation of this orchid is relatively straightforward and is usually done from stem cuttings. The vanilla orchid in the Palm House at Kew flowers every year and is hand-pollinated in order to produce pods.
Does Vanilla Come from Orchids?
Credit: Plants of the World Online
Yes. Your favorite vanilla flavor and scent is brought to you by the delicate Vanilla orchid genus. It is, in fact, the second most expensive spice, next to saffron. It has perhaps been added to almost every imaginable product. Ice cream, chocolate, scented candles, perfumes, and even skincare and cosmetics – you name it.
It is produced from Vanilla planifolia, or the Flat-Leaved Vanilla or Vanilla fragrans, which is the only type of orchid ever used for industrial food production.
The vanilla pods or the bean are harvested from the orchid plant when they are not yet ripe. They are washed in hot water and then dried for months, sometimes as long as six months.
These pods are sold at a higher price because they contain thousands of little black seeds inside, which is where the flavor comes from. Vanilla extract, on the other hand, which is produced from macerating vanilla beans and diluting them in alcohol and water, is much cheaper.
How to Grow Vanilla Orchids
According to Ortho’s Complete Guide to Orchids, at least 2 million vanilla beans are imported every year in the United States alone. This almost unquenchable demand has set many commercial orchid growers on a roll propagating Vanilla planifolia orchids on a massive scale in exotic tropical countries, such as Madagascar, Réunion, the Comoro Islands, Indonesia, and Mexico.
You, too, can grow your own Vanilla orchids at home.
- Start by growing it in a pot filled with well-draining soil. Try a combination of equal parts half-bark and half potting mix.
- As the orchid starts to grow and develop, you can train its vine with a stake if there’s no tree around. This will help you save space while getting the vines to grow longer.
- Fertilize your Vanilla orchid plant regularly, every couple of weeks with well-balanced orchid fertilizer. If you’re growing them for the vanilla pods and for consumption, it’s better to search for an organic option.
- Vanilla orchid plants thrive in bright, filtered light and high humidity. If you have a greenhouse, this is the best spot for this orchid plant if you don’t live somewhere tropical. Because it’s a place that’s almost always bright and sunny, growing orchids in Los Angeles can be a breeze.
- Help reach healthy levels of humidity, 80 percent for this specific orchid, by misting every morning and during intensely hot afternoons.
- Water your orchids regularly and generously. Let it dry out completely occasionally, which is said to trigger flowering.
Patience is a must-have if you wish to be a proud owner of a blooming Vanilla orchid plant, as the vine has to be 30 foot-long before it can even begin to flower and can take as long as five years before you can harvest your homegrown vanilla pods.
For more orchid care tips, read How to Maintain Your Orchids Indoors.
Credit: Plants of the World Online
List of Orchids Species Vanilla Orchid Genus
The World Monocot Checklist recognizes 110 orchid species from the Vanilla orchid genus.
- Vanilla abundiflora (Borneo)
- Vanilla acuminata (Gabon)
- Vanilla africana (W & WC Tropical Africa)
- Vanilla albida (Indonesia)
- Vanilla andamanica (Andaman Islands)
- Vanilla angustipetala (Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina)
- Vanilla annamica (S China to Vietnam)
- Vanilla aphylla (SE Asia to Java)
- Vanilla appendiculata (Guyana, Surinam, Brazil, Peru)
- Vanilla bahiana (Brazil: Bahia)
- Vanilla barbellata (S Florida through Caribbean)
- Vanilla bertoniensis (Paraguay)
- Vanilla bicolor (Caribbean to N South America)
- Vanilla borneensis (NE India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia:Borneo)
- Vanilla bradei (Brazil: São Paulo)
- Vanilla calopogon (Philippines: Luzon)
- Vanilla calyculata (Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia)
- Vanilla chalottii (Gabon)
- Vanilla chamissonis (Brazil)
- Vanilla claviculata (Caribbean)
- Vanilla columbiana (Colombia)
- Vanilla coursii (Madagascar)
- Vanilla crenulata (W & WC Tropical Africa)
- Vanilla cristagalli (N Brazil)
- Vanilla cucullata (Cameroon)
- Vanilla decaryana (SW Madagascar)
- Vanilla diabolica (Indonesia: Sulawesi)
- Vanilla dilloniana (S Florida to Caribbean)
- Vanilla dubia (Brazil: Minas Gerais)
- Vanilla dungsii (Brazil)
- Vanilla edwallii (Brazil to Argentina)
- Vanilla fimbriata (Brazil, Guyana)
- Vanilla francoisii (NE Madagascar)
- Vanilla gardneri (Brazil)
- Vanilla giulianettii (New Guinea)
- Vanilla grandiflora (Venezuela, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, Peru, Brazil)
- Vanilla grandifolia (Príncipe to Zaire)
- Vanilla griffithii (W Malaysia)
- Vanilla guianensis (Guyana, Suriname, Brazil)
- Vanilla hallei (Gabon)
- Vanilla hamata (Peru)
- Vanilla hartii (Mexico to French Guiana & Brazil)
- Vanilla havilandii (Borneo)
- Vanilla helleri (Nicaragua, Costa Rica)
- Vanilla heterolopha (Gabon, Congo)
- Vanilla hostmannii (Colombia, Guyana, French Guiana, Suriname, Venezuela, Brazil)
- Vanilla humblotii (Comoros)
- Vanilla imperialis (W Tropical Africa to Tanzania and Angola)
- Vanilla inodora (Mexico and Central America)
- Vanilla insignis (Mexico and Central America)
- Vanilla kaniensis (New Guinea)
- Vanilla kempteriana (New Guinea)
- Vanilla kinabaluensis (Peninsular Malaysia to Borneo)
- Vanilla madagascariensis (N & NW Madagascar)
- Vanilla methonica (Colombia, Peru)
- Vanilla mexicana (S Florida, Mexico to Venezuela)
- Vanilla montana (Malaysia)
- Vanilla moonii (Sri Lanka)
- Vanilla nigerica (S Nigeria to Cameroon)
- Vanilla ochyrae (Cameroon)
- Vanilla odorata (S Mexico to tropical South America)
- Vanilla organensis (Brazil: Rio de Janeiro)
- Vanilla oroana (Ecuador)
- Vanilla ovalis (Philippines)
- Vanilla ovata (Venezuela & Guyana)
- Vanilla palembanica (Sumatra)
- Vanilla palmarum (Amazon Basin)
- Vanilla parvifolia (S Brazil to Paraguay)
- Vanilla penicillata (Venezuela, Brazil)
- Vanilla perrieri (NW Madagascar)
- Vanilla phaeantha (S Florida, Caribbean, Mexico, Venezuela)
- Vanilla phalaenopsis (Seychelles)
- Vanilla planifolia (Mexico & Central America, widely cultivated)
- Vanilla platyphylla (Indonesia: Sulawesi)
- Vanilla poitaei (Caribbean)
- Vanilla polylepis (Kenya to S tropical Africa)
- Vanilla pompona (Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, W Colombia, Ecuador)
- Vanilla ramificans (New Guinea)
- Vanilla ramosa (Ghana to Tanzania)
- Vanilla ribeiroi (Brazil, Guyana, Colombia)
- Vanilla roscheri (Ethiopia to NE KwaZulu-Natal)
- Vanilla ruiziana (Peru, Bolivia)
- Vanilla savannarum (Cuba)
- Vanilla schwackeana (Brazil: Minas Gerais)
- Vanilla seranica (Indonesia: Seram)
- Vanilla seretii (WC tropical Africa)
- Vanilla siamensis (S Yunnan to Thailand)
- Vanilla somai (China to Taiwan)
- Vanilla sprucei (Colombia)
- Vanilla sumatrana (Sumatra)
- Vanilla tahitensis (South Pacific)
- Vanilla trigonocarpa (Costa Rica to N Brazil)
- Vanilla utteridgei (S New Guinea)
- Vanilla vellozii (Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina)
- Vanilla verrucosa (Argentina)
- Vanilla walkeriae (S India, Sri Lanka)
- Vanilla wariensis (New Guinea)
- Vanilla wightii (S India, Sri Lanka)
- Vanilla yersiniana (Thailand, Vietnam)
- Vanilla zanzibarica (E Africa)