Did you know that vanilla (the real kind, not imitation) comes from an orchid flower?
My amazing husband George grows vanilla orchids, cultivates vanilla beans from the flowers, and makes extract from the beans! I’m going to track the steps, beginning with the orchid flowering, through pollination and cultivation of the beans. I’ll add photos along the way, since the entire process takes more than a year (and you wondered why real vanilla costs so much) …
The vanilla orchid grows on a vine. It helps to have a lot of space, but George set up a trellis, so the vine winds up and down and around. Here’s a photo of George’s helper, Lars, watching the vanilla grow..
The first step of the process: the flower.
This is one of the flower buds, as yet unopened. You can see a drop of nectar – so sweet! I’m not sure what the purpose of the nectar is, some think it may be there to attract ants, which would protect the flower.
This is one of the flower spikes on the vanilla plant. There are five separate flower buds, unopened, on this one spike. There are at least four other flower spikes on the plant. Finally, one of the flowers opened!
Unlike many other orchids which have flowers that can last for a month or more, each vanilla flower only blooms for one day. If you want to cultivate the vanilla, you have to pollinate the flower before it fades. The natural pollinator isn’t present in most places, so it’s usually necessary to hand-pollinate vanilla. It’s not easy to do, but George has a really good success rate. He takes a wooden stick and transfers pollen from one part of the flower to another (the anther to the stigma).
This is the flower, immediately after pollination. You can see the other unopened flower buds on the spike.
After a short time, the flower collapses.
Stay tuned for more … next, the flowers that were successfully pollinated will develop into beans .. If you want to learn more, there’s a great wikipedia entry on vanilla.