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Vanilla Beans and Plants: The Fruit of Orchids

There are nearly thirty separate species of tropical, climbing orchids.  Yes, vanilla is the fruit of orchids, and only fruit any orchid ever bears.  Grown here in the United States, the only variety that is of primary is the Mexican V. fragrans,  which is widely cultivated throughout the Americas.  However, in the tropics especially in Tahiti, where it is prized for its fruit, which is the source of some of the world’s best vanilla.

    Vanilla plant, flowers, beans (1915) McCormick Co. Public Domain

Vanilla plant, flowers, beans (1915) McCormick Co. Public Domain

The Tahitian variety is a tall climbing, fleshy stemmed vine, with oblong, thick, fleshy leaves that are six to eight inches long and about two inches wide.

The flowers are greenish-yellow and about three inches wide that are grouped in a raceme.  Sepals and petals are narrow.  The lip of the flower is trumpet shaped, and shorter than the actual petals, in a pretty scalloped manner.

The fruit is a slender, bean-like pod.  And that pod is one of the most coveted spices to be found.  It is widely imitated, but like with all things artificial, true vanilla cannot be captured and for real foodies, vanilla beans must be fresh. In the Americas, we can thank the Aztecs who cultivated the plant for its fragrant aromatic pods.  The commercial variety that most of us see, in the refined artificial flavorings come from the East Indies. Growing it for market is a very labor intensive endeavor.    Another surprising fact is that seventy-five percent of all vanilla is grown in Madagascar and La Reunion, which is a former French island, located east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

A vanilla vine will when mature bear forty to fifty vanilla beans a year for many years.  The plant is successfully grown in southern and western states, but does not do as well in greenhouses because it rarely sets pods because of pollination issues. 

Another little historical tidbit that most people don’t know about vanilla beans is that Vanilla is the Spanish word for “a little sheath or pod.”   Furthermore, growing vanilla is very labor intensive, making it the second most expensive spice in the world.

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