An Orchidist's Miscellany


 Vanilla, that popular food flavouring, is naturally produced from an orchid. While much of the essence now used has been artificially produced, the 'genuine' product is still produced. It is said that vanilla is the "orchid of commerce"

Vanilla was known and widely used by the Aztec Indians of Mexico, prior to the discovery of America. The plant was found growing wild by the Spanish Conquistadors. It was probably imported into Europe about 1 5 1 0, but while it flowered, no fruits were set because the natural pollinators were absent. In 1807 it was cultivated successfully in England. The successful development of artificial (hand) pollination allowed pods to be obtained. (The vanilla is produced in the mature seed pod.) This, plus the development of cutting propagation techniques accelerated the expansion of the plant as a crop through- out the tropics. Now Madagascar and Mexico are the principal producers of natural vanilla.

Vanilla beans naturally drying in sun

Vanilla, the plant, is native of the tropics requiring hot moist conditions without droughts or cold winds, to grow successfully. Altogether there are some 50 species within the genus Vanilla, although only three are important, V planifolia being the most widely propagated. The plant is a coarse vine which climbs to the tops of trees, and if you are thinking of growing it in your glasshouse, you will need a big one, as it can grow some 15 - 25 metres high!!! It is in fact the tallest growing orchid that exists. The vine produces relatively inconspicuous greenish-yellow flowers. The seed capsule, called in the trade a 'bean' is narrowly cylindrical 100 - 250 mm long, 8 - 14 mm in diameter.

Vanillin (the aromatic chemical involved) develops during the ripening (curing) process of the pod. Curing is achieved by initially killing and wilting the 'bean', followed by heating until it acquires the proper texture and flexibility. They are then dried and matured. The pod can be used, although usually the vanillin is usually extracted by a solvent for more easy use.
While natural vanilla is now little used, whenever you have a vanilla ice-cream you should say a silent 'thank you' for this orchid which has tantalised so many taste buds for so long.