Native to southern Mexico and neighbouring Guatemala, this orchid produces seedpods that are the source of vanilla, one of the world's best-known and most widely used flavourings. Its habitat is humid tropical forests, where it grows in the shade of closely spaced trees, away from direct sunlight.
It is a perennial vine with herbaceous stems that climb supported by aerial roots, which arise at nodes along their underside. The aerial roots cling to structures they climb on, usually a tree trunk, supporting the vine as it grows and at the same time taking up moisture and nutrients to nourish the plant.
Individual vines in the wild may be up to 30 m (100 ft) long but are more commonly 5 to 15 m (16 to 50 ft) in cultivation and are either branched or unbranched. They have thick, fleshy stems that are dark green and photosynthetic like the leaves, absorbing sunlight that filters through from the forest canopy above.
The leaves are lance-shaped, 10 to 20 cm (4 to 8 in) long, dark green and fleshy. They are borne alternately along the stem at nodes opposite the aerial roots, which become fastened to the tree trunk.
The flowers are large, 5 to 8 cm (2 to 3 in) wide, orchid-like with ruffled lips, pale green or yellow and set in three to five yellow-green sepals. They are held in clusters of ten to twenty, occasionally up to thirty, borne near the top of the stems but with only one to three flowers opening each day. These are pollinated naturally by a type of bee found only in the plant's native range, making hand-pollination the only viable alternative elsewhere, otherwise few if any flowers develop seedpods.
Fertilised flowers are followed by green, smooth-skinned tubular seedpods 10 to 25 cm (4 to 10 in) long, when mature becoming pale yellow, at about seven to ten months after fruit-set and with many tiny, roundish seed inside.
Vanilla flavouring comes from the seedpod, which is harvested and allowed to sweat (ferment) under controlled conditions to produce what is commonly known as the 'Vanilla bean'.
The traditional process involves immersing the mature bean in near-boiling water to kill it, then it is sweated (fermented) which causes it to change colour, becoming dark brown or brown-black. As it darkens, the bean loses moisture and wilts, becoming wrinkled and through the process develops its rich vanilla flavour and aroma.
Vanilla has long been used for flavouring food, first by the ancient Aztecs, who discovered it, up to the present day where it is used to flavour many sweet dishes, the best-known of which is probably vanilla ice cream. Apart from ice cream, it is used to flavour cakes, puddings, custards, chocolate, beverages and medicines.
It is also used as a fragrance in air fresheners, soaps and has become one of the most widely used perfume ingredients, appearing in the principle notes of near a quarter of all high-quality perfumes, including 'L' Aimant' by Coty, 'Bois des Iles' by Chanel, 'Jicky' by Guerlain, 'Habanita' by Molinard and 'Amouage'.
An extract of vanilla can be made by removing the seed from the pod and soaking it in unflavoured, colourless alcohol, such as vodka for at least four weeks, preferably in a glass bottle kept in the cupboard and shaken once a day. Vanilla extract can also be found for sale in supermarkets, usually in the baking aisle.
Grows and flowers naturally in moderately humid to very humid subtropical and tropical climates, generally frost-free areas with annual lows of 19 to 25 °C, annual highs of 27 to 35 °C, annual rainfall of 1200 to 4300 mm and a dry season of 4 months or less. Vanilla vines may fail to thrive in areas where the average low of the coldest month is below 14 °C (50 °F).
New plants are usually grown from stem cuttings 0.9 to 1.2 m (3 to 4 feet) long, with the severed end and one node buried in free-draining soil and the exposed length tethered to a support structure for the vine to cling to and grow up on.
The planting site should be in filtered sun or light shade and the soil loose loam or sand enriched with organic matter, the pH in the 5.0 to 7.0 range. Mulching with light-weight organic material around the base, such as coconut husks, is recommended to maintain a moist soil in dry weather.
The vines start to flower around eighteen months to two years after planting, and a small crop may be produced seven to ten months after that. The flowering season usually coincides with the rainy season, which is spring to summer in its native range.
Hand-pollinating is done in the morning, while the flower is fresh. It involves removing the pollen-masses with a toothpick or small instrument and moving it gently into contact with the stigma.
The seedpods produce large quantities of small, viable seed that are easily dispersed by wind and flowing water. It is reported to have escaped cultivation and naturalised in Puerto Rico and is assessed as a high weed risk species for Hawaii, by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment (HPWRA) project.
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