Growing Tasty Tropical Vanilla

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Photo courtesy Storey Publishing (c) 2010
Learn how to grow vanilla, the spice that bakers covet most.

Excerpted from Growing Tasty Tropical Plants in Any Home, Anywhere, by Laurelynn G. Martin and Byron E. Martin, with permissions from Storey Publishing (c) 2010. The following excerpt can be found on Pages 122 to 123.  

Vanilla planifolia
• vuh-NIL-luh plan-ih-FOH-lee-uh

• Tasty Tropical Recipe: Rick’s Rum-Infused Vanilla Dessert 

Vanilla is the spice that bakers covet most. Countries have even gone to war over vanilla. This slow-growing vine needs support and thrives under warm, humid conditions. Like most orchids, it needs good-quality light and a healthy root system to flower and bloom. The potting mix needs to be airy and porous — sphagnum moss is a great growing medium for this epiphyte. Some support is needed so vanilla can anchor its roots and make its vertical climb. You can allow your vanilla vine to ramble over a slab of cedar or cypress, a column of cork or tree fern, or even a whole wall in a sunroom or greenhouse. Where space is an issue, grow on a trellis or hoop and wrap the vine around itself.

It takes several years of good growth to bring a young plant into flower, so patience is needed. Plants seem to flower better once the vining stems have climbed to the top of a structure and then toppled over to dangle in the air. The flowers form at the leaf axils and emerge from short stems in clusters, with individual flowers opening successively over a period of many days or even weeks. The blooms are open only one day and need to be hand-pollinated to produce beans. After pollination, the young green pods (beans) grow very fast, reaching 8 to 10 inches long in a few weeks. Pods then remain on the plant for up to six months before ripening.

A variegated form of vanilla has beautiful golden striped leaves, and it flowers more slowly, even when the vine is mature, mostly because variegated plants have less chlorophyll.

Plant Particulars 

SIZE AND FORM: 5 to 10 feet with support; woody vine
BLOOM SEASON: Spring through fall
FAMILY: Orchidaceae
ORIGIN: Mexico

Growing Conditions 

LIGHT: Partial sun
SOIL: Orchid potting mix or sphagnum moss
HARDINESS OUTDOORS: Zone 10; protect from frost


FERTILIZING: Light feeder; supply 1/2 teaspoon of a balanced fertilizer every two weeks.
PRUNING: Little is needed. Wrap stem back around itself to maintain size.

Potential Problems 

PESTS: Not susceptible
FOLIAR DISEASE: Susceptible in conditions of stagnant air, wet foliage, and cool temperatures
ROOT DISEASE: Susceptible if grown in a heavy potting mix or a container with poor drainage, especially in cool temperatures

How to Make Vanilla Extract 

Vanilla beans take six to nine months to mature on the vine. You’ll know the beans are ready to pick once they begin to turn yellow. Here’s how to process your homegrown beans:

1. Pick beans when they begin to turn yellow.

2. Blanch in hot water for a few minutes (this helps clean the surfaces of mold).

3. Spread on paper towels and dry out of direct sunlight in an airy spot with low humidity. Drying takes several weeks or even a few months. Beans turn black when dry.

4. Once dried, soak 3 or 4 beans in 1/2 cup of vodka to make a strong, baker’s-quality vanilla extract. 

Buy Growing Tasty Tropical Plants In Any Home, Anywhere. 

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