The What, How and Why of Vanilla

I was at my cousin & best friend Prema’s house during the first week of Jan ‘13, sipping my piping hot coffee and enjoying the beautiful pristine surroundings & the crisp fresh air. The chirping birds, the colourful lotus in the pond, far away cry of peacocks & mist filled tranquil surrounding, always fills me up with calm & peace. On every visit there, I feel as if I’m seeing everything for the first time!!

All of a sudden, I could hear some commotion nearby under the pomegranate tree & saw both Prema & her husband Dr. Ashok busy doing something by the trunk of the tree. Curiosity dragged me there & I got the chance to witness the unique way of artificial pollination of vanilla. In my previous visit there, I had the privilege of clicking the wonderful pictures of the vine, buds, flower & beans of vanilla with the help of Prema’s niece Muth. When I showed the pictures to my friends & colleagues, practically everyone had no knowledge what so ever about how vanilla comes & asked me such questions which I had no answers too. I decided to ask Dr. Ashok who is a treasure house of knowledge on plants with a wealth of firsthand experiences. Upon my request as always Ashok patiently explained me the whole process briefly in layman’s terms. I believe that an experienced knowledge is better than the book knowledge!!

History

Vanilla is the fruit of an orchid vine (I am sure most of you did not know that!), which grows in the form of a bean pod. It is said that Vanilla (botanical name: Vanilla planifolia) originated in Mexico with the Totonaco Indians, (it always amazes me is to how without any modern technology our forefathers understood the mysteries of Mother Nature?) who were conquered by the Aztecs who, in turn, were conquered by Hernando Cortez. Vanilla is pollinated by the Melipone bee in Mexico. Along with other plunder, Cortez took cacao beans & vanilla pods back to Spain. But he forgot to carry the bees!! He couldn’t conquer the beeeeeeeeezzz!!! 😀

Today, Vanilla grown in all regions in the tropical belts & currently Madagascar is the largest producer.

There are three main bean varieties, Mexican, Madagascar and Tahitian. Mexican beans are mellow and smooth with spicy, woody fragrance. Madagascar beans called Bourbon bean after the former name of Reunion Ile Bourbon are long and slender have thick, oily skin with a very rich taste and smell. It contains numerous tiny seed with strong aroma. Tahitian beans are plump, short and high in oil content. The skin is thinner, contains fewer seed and the aroma is fruity and floral somewhere between licorice, cherry and prunes. Natural vanilla extracted from high quality beans is the second most expensive spice after saffron. Natural vanilla extract is a mixture of several hundred different compounds in addition to primary compound vanillin.

In Madagascar, it is supposed to be pollinated by humming birds which is endemic to Madagascar. In Kodagu a very small percentage of pollination is done through ants & moths which come to drink the nectar at night. another variety of vanilla not much known is found in Andhra Pradesh, India, which does not have leaves & grows from node to node zigzag (may be one day I will post some pictures). Vanilla is the only orchid that produces an edible fruit known to man. Like other orchids’ seeds, vanilla seeds will not germinate without the presence of certain mycorrhizal fungi. Hence the creeper is reproduced by planting the cuttings which already contain the fungi.

Planting

First a section of the vine with 6 or more leaf nodes, which has aerial roots growing opposite each leaf, is removed. The two lower leaves are removed, & lower area is buried in loose soil at the base of a central support. Vanilla climbs up an existing tree (a tutor), pole, or on any other support.  It can be grown in a plantation on trees or poles, or in an enclosed greenhouse, in increasing orders of productivity. The more the roots the creeper has, healthier the creeper is. So around the support, the creeper is planted almost bringing the creeper into a whole circle so that the creeper produces more roots. The remaining upper roots will cling to the support, & often growing down into the soil. The creeper needs 30% sun & 70% shade. Not much water is required and a spray (fogging) system is ideal. While planting make sure there is enough room to approach the creeper particularly for hand pollination. Its growth environment is referred to as its terroir & it includes not only the adjacent plants, but also the climatic conditions. Flowering season could be longer depending upon the care given the creeper & the terroir.

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Pollination

Growing vanilla is laborious especially because of the artificial pollination by hand. The vanilla flower lasts just about one day.In 1836, botanist Charles Morren by chance witnessed the black bees pollinating the vanilla flower & began experimenting with hand pollination. However, in 1841, a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Reunion developed a simple & efficient artificial hand-pollination method which is still used today. Vanilla flowers are hermaphroditic & carry both male (anther) & female (stigma) organs; however, to avoid self-pollination, a membrane (a petal) separates those organs. So manually the membrane is lifted with a bamboo sliver (thinner than toothpick), then, using the thumb, transferred the pollinia from the anther to the stigma. The flower, self-pollinated, will then produce a fruit. You will not know if the pollination is successful or not in about a week. If after a week the petals falls off that means the pollination is not successful. If the petals remains intact even after a week, that indicates that the pollination is successful & the beans will grow.

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Maintenance

Between flower & plucking the pod it takes around 6 months. Neither the green pods nor the flowers have the flavor or odor of vanilla. The nodes which once yielded beans will not yield again. After harvesting of the bean you have to prune the creeper. When there is no rain (in Feb) you have to stress the plant by not irrigating them. Nip the tip of the vine so that the nutrients are used for the growth of the creeper. When you nip the creeper, new nod which grow is usually thicker & healthier than the original one!! Then if you irrigate, the nutrients are used for flowering.

Beans

When the beans are light yellow it is ready to pick (over ripping can cause the beans to split). The whole bunch may not be ready at the same time. Hence collection of the bean is arduous. Once plucked, put the beans in 60 degree temperature water between 5 to 10 minutes depending upon the size of the bean to arrest the processes of the living plant tissues. Remove from the water & keep it in a shade wrapped air tight in a woolen blanket to let the bean sweat. Next day (i.e. after 24 hours) dry it in sun for 2 to 3 hours. Once hot remove from sun, wrap again in woolen blanket & keep in shade for sweating. Repeat the ritual for 3 days & from 4th day shade dry till it is almost dried. It is important to massage the bean from one end to other to distribute the fluid inside evenly. This also makes the bean straight. To test the right curing, try to wrap the bean around your finger which should coil easily. Also if the curing is proper, vanillin crystals will form on the skin of the pod.  Cured vanilla pods contain approximately 2% by dry weight vanillin. On cured pods of high quality, relatively pure vanillin may be visible as a white dust or frost (what looks like sugar crystals) on the exterior of the pod. Almost the same methodology is used in large scale production. Beans of 6 inches & above, the bean is considered ‘A’ grade. Once dried the bean is dark brown in colour. After processing wrap 1 kg (around 60 beans) with butter paper & stack them in an air tight wooden box. Beans should be kept in a tightly-closed container in a refrigerated area. It should also be kept tightly-sealed, in a cool, dry place away from sun & heat.  This way you can preserve it for years together. Pure vanilla extract has an indefinite shelf-life, & actually improves with age like a fine wine or liquor.

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The end result!

It’s hard to describe the highly valued flavour of Vanilla as different people describes it in different way like, pure, spicy, delicate floral, creamy, spicy, woody & fruity. It brings happy mood to majority of the people but there are very few who practically hates it!! (I did a small survey involving more than half a dozen different nationalities and got very varied responses from everyone!). Both natural & artificial vanilla is used for flavouring in baking, chocolate, ice creams, perfumes, creams, etc. Some use vanilla powder (ground vanilla beans) & others use whole vanilla beans. These whole beans can be rinsed after use, thoroughly dried, & stored for reuse. For maximum effect, people tend to cut the bean in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and use them. Instead of wasting the skin, powder them and mix with sugar so that you can flavor your coffee and tea with vanilla.

Artificial vanilla flavoring is a solution of pure vanillin, usually made either from guaiacol or from lignin, a constituent of wood, a byproduct of the pulp industry. Semi-synthetic vanillin is derived from the eugenol found in clove oil. However, today most synthetic vanillin is synthesized in a 2-step process from the petrochemical precursors guaiacol & glyoxvlic acid!! Bet most of you did not know that most of the vanilla you taste is petrochemical!

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5 thoughts on “The What, How and Why of Vanilla

  1. I’ve seen vanilla and thought of it only as a pretty creeper- never imagined it to be an orchid- and never thought of the background work involved in its processing; Thanx for all that info; Keep posting !

    Reply
  2. Having lived in the middle of all this, i never took the effort of knowing these details 😦
    Thank you for this write up…it was so informative & very well written! Looking forward to lots more 😀

    Reply
  3. Above you have mentioned its ur cousins place . Actually i had been trying to source organic indian vanilla beans . If its possible can i get a chance to get hands on those vanilla beans ofcourse after paying the desired amt for same . It’d be great if you could help 🙂

    Reply
    • Dear Soham

      Thank you for reading my blog.

      Yeh the pictures I have posted are at my cousin’s place and it’s organic. But I am not sure if they

      have enough to supply. But if you are really serious I could find out if anyone around who wants

      to sell. I will be visiting India during Dec/Jan. Please let me know what quantity you are looking

      for and what price you are offering?

      You can mail me at coorg2013 at gmail dot com

      Reply

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