The Vanilla Orchid: Tips for cultivation and maintenance

Do you dream of growing vanilla at home? Vanilla planifolia is the main species of vanilla plant used to produce vanilla and its cultivation is quite possible in our interior. It is a vine native to Mexico that grows naturally along trees. In addition to the type species, there is also a variant with variegated leaves (Vanilla planifolia ‘Variegata’) that is very decorative and graphic. Contrary to popular belief, with a little interest and passion, it is quite possible to grow vanilla at home and even produce vanilla pods!

How to grow the vanilla orchid at home?

The vanilla orchid is no more complicated to live with than any other green plant. No specific installation is required as the vanilla orchid adapts perfectly to our indoor temperatures of 18-20°C. choose him a well-lit position, but avoid full sun (direct sunlight which causes the leaves to die). Due to its tropical origin, place it if possible in a room with a fairly high humidity (ideally above 70%), such as the bathroom. If the air in your desired location is too dry, spray the foliage regularly. In its natural environment it is an epiphytic plant that grows like a vine thanks to its aerial roots, so it must be supported so that it can climb and flourish. Note that the first bloom usually occurs when the plant is 3 to 4 meters tall.

As for watering, the plant should be watered about 2 times a week. As with other orchids, use lime-free water or rainwater. Be careful, the substrate must be constantly slightly moist, but not soggy, otherwise you risk your orchid wilting quickly. To boost the growth and flowering of the plant, you can feed your vanilla orchid once a week from April to September with special orchid fertilizer.

Variegated Vanilla Orchid ‘Variegata’ – Photo: Rexania

Get flowers and produce pods?

Growing the plant indoors and getting flowers is relatively easy, but getting the famous pods is a bit more complicated, but doable if you control pollination, which must be done carefully by hand. In Mexico, its country of origin, it is a small endemic bee that is responsible for the pollination of the flowers. But everywhere else where vanilla has been introduced by man (especially in Réunion, Madagascar or the Comoros for the so-called “Bourbon” vanilla, but also in Asia, mainly India), flowers have almost no chance of being fertilized naturally.

As a result, only human intervention allows the fertilization of flowers. This procedure consists of spotting the newly opened flowers and fertilizing them immediately! The flower is very ephemeral indeed, it fades in less than a day. To perform this gesture, you will need a small pointed stick, or just a toothpick. Using your tools, you need to bring the pistil into contact with the pollen from the stamens, which are separated by a small tab that prevents pollination. If you have succeeded in this crucial step, you will see the development of young vanilla pods that look like spiky capsules. After pollination, it takes between 8 and 10 months for the pods to mature. With good growing conditions, the first flowering occurs in the third year and the first production in the fourth or fifth year.

Manual fertilization of a vanilla flower!

The pods are harvested when they are just starting to turn yellow (before they are fully grown), the time has come to pick and “prepare” them. It is a treatment in several stages, first scalding (a few minutes in water at 65°C), steaming (for 12 hours: the pod then turns brown) and drying (about 6 weeks, in the sun and then in the shade). This entire process of preparing the pods serves to enhance their scent and the aromas of the vanilla.