Gardening

How to plant vanilla

Vanilla planifolia

The vanilla is a climbing orchid native to Mexico that can reach over 10 meters in length. Its fruits are pods 10 to 25 cm long and 5 to 15 mm in diameter, each containing a large number of tiny seeds. It is the cured pods of the vanilla, whole or reduced to powder, or the extract obtained from them, that make up the natural vanilla.

Natural vanilla contains more than a hundred aromatic compounds, the main one being vanillin. Artificial vanilla, in contrast, is composed only of synthetic vanillin diluted in a solution.

Vanilla is the only edible fruit of orchids, the largest family of flowering plants. Although there are other species in the Vanilla genus that can supply natural vanilla, the Vanilla planifolia species is the most cultivated and the one with the highest vanillin content in the pods.

Climate

The most suitable regions for its cultivation have average temperatures above 21 ° C throughout the year, with regular rainfall and high relative humidity.

Brightness

It needs to be cultivated with partial shading.

Ground

The soil must be well drained, light, fertile and very rich in organic matter, which must completely cover the soil, forming a layer of plant material.

Irrigation

Irrigate in order to keep the soil always moist for most of the year, but without being soaked. A drier period of approximately one or two months is necessary to induce flowering.

Planting

Vanilla seeds are generally not viable and plants from seeds take a long time to start flowering, so planting is normally done by cutting. The branches that will be planted must be 30 to 100 cm long or more (the bigger the piece of branch, the faster the plant will start to bloom), with one to three nodes of the stem being buried in the soil. The leaves of the part of the stem that will be buried must be removed (there is a leaf in each node).

As the vanilla tree is a vine, supports are needed for its growth, which can be wooden poles with a height of 1.5 m in relation to the ground, or they can be trees. The spacing between plants can vary from 1 to 3 m. However, small spacing can make it difficult to treat crops and fight pests and diseases.

The planting can be done in the final place, opening pits beside the supports or trees that will be used as support. Planting can also be done in pots or bags for seedlings, and the transplant is done after the branches take root. Rooting and starting to grow a branch usually takes 4 to 6 weeks.

Cultivation

Between the vertical supports, be they stakes or trees, are horizontally arranged, wooden logs, beams or poles, at a height of 1.5 m. If planting is done next to trees, the vanilla must have its vertical growth restricted, pulling the plant carefully to the horizontal support. This is necessary to keep the plant at a height where it can be easily handled.

The flowers have anthers with pollen and stigmas, but these are separated by a structure called the rostelo, which prevents the self-pollination of the flower. In their native habitat in Mexico, vanilla flowers are pollinated mainly by native bees of the genus Melipona . When cultivated, vanilla flowers have to be pollinated manually. This is done with the aid of a wooden or bamboo toothpick, which is used to spread the face, so that with the fingers of the other hand, it is possible to join the male (anther) and female (stigma) parts of the flower performing pollination.

The flowers need to be pollinated in the morning, as they open during the night and then there is less than twelve hours for the flower to be pollinated. Flowers that are not pollinated on the opening day fall on the following days. Pollination needs to be carried out every day, as the flowers do not all open at the same time.

The ideal is to keep only 4 to 8 pods per inflorescence, eliminating the remaining flowers or pods.

The removal of invasive plants must be done with great care, as the vanilla roots are superficial and can easily be damaged.

Harvest

Each plant begins to produce flowers only from the second to the fourth year of cultivation, depending on the size of the branch that was used in planting and the growing conditions. The time it takes from flowering to harvest is 6 to 9 months. The pods are harvested when they are beginning to ripen, becoming pale. The pods must be harvested frequently, as they open and release the seeds when they are fully ripe.

Once harvested, the pods must go through a drying and ripening process before they are ready for use, which is called curing vanilla. When properly cured, the vanilla pods are flexible, very dark and have the desired aroma. They may also have small vanillin crystals covering the surface, which in the past was considered a visible sign of the quality of the pods.

There are several ways to cure vanilla pods, almost always consisting of four steps. In the first stage, pods and seeds have their vegetative development interrupted. This is done by leaving the pods exposed to the sun for several hours, usually on dark blankets or tarps, which at the end of the day are folded and placed in closed boxes to keep the pods warm for longer. The pods can also be dipped in hot water (~ 65 ° C) for a period of two to three minutes before drying in the sun. Another variation is the use of special ovens for this drying. At this point the pods must have acquired a brown color.

Then comes the stage in which the pods are exposed to the sun for two or three hours, in the hottest part of the day, and again stored in boxes. This is repeated for several days (5 to 8 days). At the end of this stage, the pods should be very flexible and dark brown in color.

In the third stage, drying continues in a shaded and well-ventilated place, and usually lasts from one to three months. The pods will then be about a third of their original weight.

In the last stage, the pods are packed in closed boxes for a period of at least three months, until they develop the desired flavor and aroma.

The vanilla can produce for more than a decade.

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