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vanilla orchid vine Photo Credit: www.OrchidPlants.info

Vanilla Orchids

Yes - Vanilla, the stuff you use to flavor cakes and deserts with, comes from an orchid !!

Vanilla is a vining orchid plant with strong aerial roots at every node where leaves join the stems which are fleshy, flexible and succulent. This habit of growth which is unique among orchids requires meticulous pruning and / or strong support such as sturdy posts or live trees.

Vanilla planifolia is grown as a commercial crop in India and other places of favorable frost free climates including Mexico.

The bloom, which occurs once a year, is a pale yellowish green about 4 inches long and intensely fragrant. Natural pollinators are hummingbirds and native bees. In order to produce pods, bloom must be pollinated by hand where natural pollinators are absent, such as in greenhouses and other confined growing areas.

About 3 years ago I finally gave in to my longtime wish for a vanilla plant.

It arrived in late summer as a 12-inch front division with 4 or 5 leaves and two small stubby roots. No instructions. When I made a long distance call to the grower, he did not appear very enthusiastic and told me to "just plant it in dirt". Well, I took the man's advice and crammed it into an 8-inch clay pot filled with regular potting soil. Naturally, it received a place of prominence in the greenhouse and was fed regularly along with the rest of our orchids.

For what seemed like a long time, all through the rest of the year and into March of the following year, the Vanilla did NOTHING, just sat there and squatted. I was not at all discouraged and continued to lavish care on it.

Suddenly, as the weather improved and the days got longer, my vanilla came to life as it put out several branches of new growth. It was a lovely lush thing to behold and quickly outgrew its pot to send long shoots up into the air. By the end of the summer, my once humble cutting had grown into a large tangle which I dutifully tied up to where it would get the most light and have room to flourish.

Then again, during the cooler months, it did not put out much growth. I was delighted when one day the following spring I noticed a wonderful scent in the greenhouse and finally discovered two pale yellow waxy blossoms. They were difficult to spot because the color very much blended in with the light green foliage. The flowers eventually dropped and the vanilla plant burst into a new spurt of uncontrolled growth.

I was amazed to notice that you could practically see the thing expanding. Front leads grew by as much as a foot EVERY DAY. Soon I was giving away vanilla cuttings to everyone I knew and some I didn't. In the mean time the vanilla plant got so out of hand, it was difficult keeping it to its assigned area. Roots shot out of nowhere and went to adjacent pots seemingly overnight to steal moisture and nourishment. I was soon convinced I had harbored a virtual cannibal which had taken up much needed space and was taking over the rafters of the greenhouse.

With some misgivings, we finally decided that the vanilla had to GO. It took two days of carefully extricating the invasive roots from neighboring orchid plants and finally cutting up and removing the plant from the greenhouse. The remains are partially buried under a blanket of soil and leaves against the back fence of our property. Perhaps it will make a new start out of doors?? Well it passed away when it got cold the following winter.

Bottom line - don't try to grow Vanilla in a hobby orchid greenhouse.
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