Do you know what makes a Vanilla ‘Vanilla’? Does it come from fruits, vegetables, beans, or legumes? Vanilla comes from fruit, and the fruit comes from an orchid flower. Vanilla is the only orchid known to have edible fruit. It flowers only once a year. If the flower is not pollinated quickly, the flower will fall off the plant and won’t produce any fruit. Have you ever wondered that to make such delicious spices, the plant had to go through such a process? However, the plants have done fantastic work, because the vanilla spice tastes good and is considered a staple ingredient in the kitchen, especially if you are a cookies lover!
Where does the Vanilla flower come from?
Vanilla is an epiphyte in the family of Orchidaceae and the Vanilla genus. There are over 110 varieties of Vanilla Orchids, but there is only one type of Vanilla Orchid that is capable of producing 99% of the Vanilla we commonly used. Its scientific name is Vanilla planifolia, native to Mexico. It grows worldwide in tropical and subtropical regions, from New Guinea, West Africa, and tropical America to tropical Asia. This flower was found in 1754 by Plumier, based on J. Miller.
The name “Vanilla” derived from the diminutive of the word “Vaina” in Spanish, which means sheath or pod, translated as ‘little pod’. Vanilla produces fruits that are shaped like beans, making people call them vanilla beans, though they are not related to true beans at all.
Vanilla is the world’s most popular aroma and taste
Because of its nice flavor and aroma, the Vanilla became the world’s most popular aroma and flavor in no time. The Vanilla contains vanillin, phenolic aldehyde, and anisaldehyde, which are combined and produced a flavor and aroma that gives predominant sensory characteristics. Up until now, Vanilla is a famous component for cosmetics, perfumes, and flavor compounds for beverages, sauce, frosting, syrup, a variety of foods, and desserts, especially for ice cream flavor.
Vanilla has trace amounts of calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, and zinc. However, because the quantity added to recipes isn’t that much, it won’t affect your daily nutrition needs significantly. Their real benefits are the taste and aroma.
Vanilla beans for cooking
Usually, vanilla beans are processed into vanilla extract as a common ingredient. Pure vanilla extract uses real vanilla beans, while imitation vanilla extract uses artificial flavoring. The whole beans or the seed are used in several recipes, but not too frequently as they might cost quite higher. Vanilla beans have the most intense flavor and aroma of Vanilla. It can be described as a sweet, warm-woody, rich, or smoky flavor.
To prepare a vanilla bean, you need a sharp knife to slice the bean in half, leaving the underside intact to scrape the seeds out. The seeds can be mixed with other ingredients, while you can use the outer pod as an infuse of the vanilla flavor into milk, sugar, or cream. You can use vanilla beans to make vanilla extract by yourself. The process is easy but takes about two months to develop the flavor. You can also opt for vanilla bean paste.
Vanilla beans might get dry but can be rehydrated by soaking them in milk or warm water for several hours.
How does the Vanilla Orchid produce vanilla fruits?
Vanilla flowers only once a year. The flower must be pollinated quickly before falling, although pollination might only be successful about one percent of the time in the wild, usually done by a type of hummingbird or bee. If cultivated by humans, the pollination must be done manually.
Vanilla plants have a fleshy and long stem that attaches to trees by their aerial rootlets. The portion of the flowering part of the orchid is small, ranging only in few centimeters with a light yellow color. Although the flowering part is small, the whole tree is large with a zig-zag-shaped vine and large, flat-shaped leaves. When successfully pollinated, it will produce vanilla pods, containing hundreds of tiny seeds with oily liquid that are very sweet and aromatic. The vanilla pods can be eaten raw by animals but must be cured for human consumption.
How to grow a Vanilla Orchid?
If you plan to plant Vanilla Orchid, the easiest way is by having a greenhouse or a room with controlled heat and light. Even the best care often does not result in the vanilla pods, which are the source of the vanilla flavor. The process is going to be tough and challenging but can be worth it once you achieved them. Here are some tips on growing them in your garden.
- Use a pot with great drainage holes.
- For the soil, prepare a mixture of fir bark and terrestrial orchid mixture.
- The Vanilla orchid needs special conditions to thrive. It needs 86 degrees Fahrenheit in the morning, and 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night.
- The Vanilla orchid prefers medium lighting to partially shaded areas.
- Water your Vanilla orchid consistently. Take note to keep them evenly moist, let the top two to three inches dry out before giving them a drink.
- Beware of spider mites and mealybugs that might damage your Vanilla orchid.
- The orchid need high moisture, which makes them often become the victim of root rot. Make sure to re-pot them annually and examine their roots carefully.
- Fertilize your Vanilla orchid every two weeks during spring and summer. Use orchid fertilizer for the best results.
Pollination process can be very demanding and require several tries. You have to remove some pollen with a toothpick from the anther then place it on the stigma. The best time to do it is in mid-morning. The stigma of the Vanilla orchid is covered by a shield, which you should gently peel, then place the pollen along with the columns, and push the shield back in place. If you have successfully done the process, the pods will start forming in one week, and requires 8 to 9 months to harvest.