The Secret of Vanilla

What is Vanilla?

Vanilla, a staple in the kitchen and a scent that reminds many of warmth and cookies, is often thought of only as the small black beans that are scraped out of vanilla pods when cooking. But the source of these beans are a beautiful orchid, native to the country of Belize.

Vanilla is an epiphyte in the family of orchids, Orchidaceae, and the genus Vanilla. Epiphytes are plants that grow on the surface of other plants, but are not parasites of the host plant. Epiphytes are common in the rainforests of Belize, and can be seen on almost every tree.

Biology of the Vanilla Orchid

Vanilla is the only orchid known to produce an edible fruit. Pollination is only successful about one percent of the time in the wild, usually by a type of bee or a hummingbird, so when cultivated by humans the plant must be manually pollinated. The flowering portion of the orchid is very small, only a few centimeters, and a light yellow color. Vanilla flowers once a year, and if the flower is not pollinated quickly enough, it will fall off the plant the next day and will not produce any fruit. Although the flower is small, the plant as a whole can be quite large, sometimes scaling the entire trunk of a tree with a zig-zag shaped vine and large, flat leaves. If the flower is pollinated, it will produce the the vanilla pod. Although they are the only fruit produced by an orchid, the vanilla pods are far from simple, they contain hundreds of tiny seeds in a dark, oily liquid that is sweet and very aromatic.

The thick vines of the vanilla orchid attach themselves to the trunk of a tree, not only for support, but also water (from the air) to the rest of the plant. The vines and leaves provide many small animals and insects with a means to travel higher into the forest. The flowers grow in clusters along the vine, each producing one pod when pollinated. The vanilla pods can be eaten raw by passing animals in the forest, such as parrots, but must be cured in order for human consumption. Although raw vanilla is safe to eat for humans, the active compound, called vanillin is not readily available in the pods until they have been treated by an enzymatic process that converts the precursor molecule in the pod to vanillin. Vanillin is responsible for the sweet, vanilla flavoring we humans are so used to.

So the next time you see vanilla on the shelf at the store, remember that it is actually a product of the rain forest!

Want to learn more about orchids? Try these resources:

Article by Britney Devasure

Image sources:

  • Vanilla display at the Caves Branch Botanical Gardens – Marija Magner, Dreamcatcher17 LLC
  • Vanilla plant – Brittany Devasure, Ricochet Creative Productions LLC

This article was updated on July 18t, 2018  to add new resources

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