Intoxicated by Vanilla
I had always thought growing vanilla was too fiddly and time consuming but a friend of mine, Janice, recently told me the intoxicating story about her vanilla plants. And I’ve got to admit, I want a cutting of my own now.
Read on for Janice’s story about growing vanilla.
Words and pictures by Janice Wormworth
It’s said that once you start with vanilla, you can’t let it go. About eight years ago I bought a vanilla orchid cutting (yes, vanilla is an orchid), with no idea if it could produce vanilla pods in Sydney’s climate. After five years of growing and looping the vine on a stake, I almost gave up and started to neglect the plant a bit. Then, to my delight, it bloomed. Dozens of beautiful pale yellow-green orchid flowers led to about 60 vanilla beans that I’ve since used to flavour everything from cakes to riso latte.
Vanilla is a little challenging to grow, but the results are hugely satisfying.
Vanilla needs shade; in the wild it grows up the trunks of trees. And if, like me, you are not in a tropical location, you’ll probably need to bring the plant inside for the coldest months (June through September in Sydney).
You’ll also need to learn how to imitate the Mexican bee that pollinates vanilla flowers in the wild. With the help of some YouTube videos and a little patience, I can successfully pollinate most vanilla blossoms.
Vanilla orchid flowers that aren’t successfully pollinated quickly whither and drop. But pollinated flowers hang on to become the tip of a green pod (or fruit) that slowly lengthens, taking up to 10 months to fully mature. Right now the pods in my photo are almost mature; my plant flowered in October and over the next couple of months I’ll watch closely for signs that they are ready to pick and cure.
As you cure the pods they turn brown or black, and start releasing their characteristic, intoxicating vanilla fragrance. There are many variations on the technique for curing, but all entail “killing” the pod (essentially cooking or freezing it), followed by curing in warm sunlight over a period of weeks.
Once curing is complete, vanilla pods are best kept in a glass jar in the fridge.
From little cutting to the cured beans, this may sound like a lot of time and work. But for me the results — a lustrous green vine yielding beautiful flowers and fabulous vanilla beans — is more than worth it. And if you need an economic argument, try to think of any other (legal) garden project that can produce hundreds of dollars’ worth of beans on a single plant!