Vanilla

I just find this interesting, it has nothing to do with anything other than the fact that I happen to like plants, especially vine plants. Bines too.

  • Vanilla beans, actually seed pods, are derived from the vanilla orchid which grows as a vine. Great pictures of the whole process here.
  • Although there are 110-150 species of vanilla orchid, only two are grown commercially. The Mexican or Bourbon (they're really similar) vanilla plant is native to the Atlantic side of Mexico while the Tahitian vanilla plant is either a mutation or hybrid of the Mexican vanilla plant that occurred in the last 50 or 60 years.
  • The bloom of a vanilla orchid only opens for one day. If it hasn't been pollinated then it drops and will not produce a bean.
  • The seeds of a vanilla pod or really any orchid will not germinate (sprout and grow) without the presence of a certain fungi, mycorrhiza. Orchid seeds have almost no stored nutrition so the seed and fungi form a symbiotic relationship whereby the orchid obtains carbon from the fungi.
  • Although orchids are self pollinating the flower can only be pollinated in the presence of a specific stingless bee, the Melipona, native only to Mexico and parts of South America. Because of this the beans must be hand pollinated as most beans are grown outside of Mexico. This is what makes vanilla so labor intensive and expensive.
  • Almost all vanilla plants are cultivated within 10 or 20 degrees of the equator with the world's largest producer being Madagascar.
  • Once pollinated the pod takes 9 months to mature.
  • Each vanilla plant will produce about 50-100 blooms per year, but only 5 or 6 flowers out of about 20 on each raceme (single vine) of these are pollinated to ensure higher quality.
  • Vanilla plants remain productive for 12-14 years but take at least 2-3 years to become productive.
  • About 97% of all vanilla that is consumed is synthetic. Which is scary because although vanilla can be synthesized in many ways (even from cow dung) presently it is usually made from guaiacol, a petrochemical.