The vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia) is one of the world’s most interesting plants. Of the nearly 35,000 species of orchid, the second largest botanical family of plants, vanilla is the only species that produces an edible fruit. True vanilla is a sought after product, usually the second most expensive spice in the world, yet we associate the word vanilla with plain, boring, and commonplace. Native to Mexico and Central America, the vanilla vine is well suited for any tropical homestead. The vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia) is one of the world’s most interesting plants. Of the nearly 35,000 species of orchid, the second largest botanical family of plants, vanilla is the only species that produces an edible fruit. True vanilla is a sought after product, usually the second most expensive spice in the world, yet we associate the word vanilla with plain, boring, and commonplace. Native to Mexico and Central America, the vanilla vine is well suited for any tropical homestead. Yet vanilla is a particular plant requiring special care, in particular during pollination where every flower must be hand pollinated.
Design and Establishment
Vanilla is an easy plant to propagate. A cutting from a mature plant, with 12 to 24 nodes or 1 to 1.5 meters long, is all that is needed to start a young vine of your own. The longer the cutting the faster it will produce flowers. Be sure to take cuttings only from healthy plants that appears free from disease and don’t take too much from any one plant, as it will set back any future flowering by at least one year.
Siting, Layout and Spacing
On a commercial scale vanilla is typically spaced on a grid of 2.5 m x 2.5 m. This leaves ample space to walk around each individual plant and quickly assess the flowering situation. On a homestead scale, vanilla can be planted closer. A 1.5 m spacing along a row would be a minimum as it is still important that you can move around each plant.
Vanilla should be planted out once posts are established and at the beginning of the rainy season. A few nodes at the base of the vine should be buried under an ample pile of woody mulch. The rest of the vine should be tied to the living post or if long enough draped over the branches. Tying parts of the vine, around nodes, to the trunk will encourage aerial roots to form and connect to the support post. Flagging tape is excellent for this task as it can stretch as the vanilla grows and is less likely to damage the vine than string or cordage.
In many ways vanilla inter-crops with other species very well but it does have specific limitations. The roots of vanilla are very susceptible to disturbance. Animals, in particular chickens, do not mix well with vanilla. Neither do tuber crops, whose harvest creates a disturbance when planted close to the base of the support species. Vanilla roots don’t extend far from the support species though, so other crops can be planted nearby.
Vanilla pods, also called beans (though not beans at all), are ready nine months after pollination. They are ready to harvest when the tip starts turning yellow. After harvest begins the processing to turn this scentless and flavorless pod into a glistening, oily, fragrant product that is incredibly valuable.
Drying and Fermentation
Pick the beans when they are ready—full, with just a hint of yellow at one tip, not splitting or fully yellow. Immediately kill the beans by putting them in direct sun for a few hours, until they feel very hot. Sort them by size, with the larger and smaller ones grouped in different piles. Separation is necessary because larger and smaller beans cure at different rates.
Wrap the beans in their respective piles in pieces of black cotton. Put this bundle in a plastic bag inside a closed box, over night. This begins the process of sweating, which you will continue to alternate with sunning for the next few weeks. Each day, unwrap the beans and spread them out in the sun for about three hours, then wrap them back up in the cotton and plastic, and sweat in the box. Repeat this process daily for two to three weeks, or until the beans are soft, fragrant, pliable, and relatively flat.
After the beans are sunned and sweated until black, fragrant, and pliable, its time to slow dry them in a shady indoor place on a rack. Do this for about three months, monitoring them closely to remove any that show signs of mold. When properly sunned and sweated, they should not mold.
At this point the vanilla can be stored in glass containers, or used to make vanilla extract.
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