Monday, February 21, 2011

Growing Vanilla Beans

 At 5 years my Vanilla Orchid finally began to flower!

Vanilla is a vining orchid that's native to central Mexico and grows well in the sub-tropics. It's farmed commercially on Maui and the Big Island.

Vanilla requires diffused light or shade as direct sun can scald the leaves. The vines will search for something fibrous to climb on - a tree trunk, fence or the side of a building. and will readily adhere to wood or concrete. If a vine grows too high up a tree it's easy to loosen and re-direct. Some of the Vanilla growers construct simple wire trellises or wire fences to support the vines. The plants grow well in containers with the same type of soil medium and care recommended for orchids.

Vanilla flowers bloom during the spring. May was the month my plant first began to bloom. The following year the first bloom was on April 4th.

 When the vine is blooming, I recommend checking it several times during the morning as the flowers can open and close in a short period of time. In Hawaii, the flowers have to be hand pollinated as we don't have a species of bee to pollinate them. There are a number of short videos on you-tube that demonstrate how to do this.

First signs of budding

A Vanilla plant takes 3 to 5 years before it flowers for the first time. Then, 9 to 10 months for the pollinated orchids to produce the bean. After the beans are harvested they're processed, dried and aged which can take from 3 to 6 months. From a flower to finished product is around 12 months.

Vanilla Beans
4 months
Vanilla Beans
10 months
At 10 months some of the beans were barely changing color but began to split at the ends. Next year I may harvest the bunches a week earlier, before there's any color change.
A wide cast iron bistro pan
Curing the vanilla beans.
The recommended way to cure vanilla beans is to wrap them in a wool blanket and let them sweat under the sun and that's what I did in 2014. It's been very rainy this month so I had to begin the curing process without the sun so I put the beans in a covered pan and let them sweat in a 120 degree oven.
. Growing vanilla is an art that I'm learning by trial and error. It could be a few more years until I master pollinating the flowers and curing the beans. As I learn more I'll update this post.

Tahitian Vanilla orchid plants are grown on the Big Island and distributed by Plant it Hawaii. I purchased my plant from Lowes in Kahului - they rarely have them in stock so I special ordered it through their garden department. Kula Hardware and Nursery has plants occasionally. Vanilla can also be grown from a cutting.