Vanilla, the world’s most popular flavor, is used in everything from ice cream and candy to cigarettes and perfume. Did you know that vanilla beans are the fruit of an orchid native to Mexico? There are more than 25,000 orchid varieties, but only one type bears edible fruit – the vanilla orchid. Each delicate flower must be pollinated by hand within six hours of opening. If left unpollinated, the blossoms wither and die without producing the string bean-looking pods. As they approach maturity, the pods are harvested by hand and cured. The entire cultivation of vanilla can take up to five years from seedling to market. It takes 600 hand-pollinated blossoms to make one kilogram of cured vanilla beans. This labor-intensive process makes vanilla one of the most expensive spices in the world, at times nearly $500 per kilogram. 

In the 16th century, Hernan Cortes, a Spanish conquistador, brought vanilla beans from Mexico to Europe where they became popular with the aristocracy. During the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson was introduced to vanilla in France. He later introduced vanilla ice cream to the United States.    

In the wild, vanilla is pollinated by a particular bee species found only in Mexico. For 300 years, attempts were made to commercialize the vanilla trade without success. Vanilla orchids were planted by French colonists on tropical islands throughout the Indian Ocean. With no natural pollinators, they failed to bear fruit. In 1841, a 12-year-old enslaved worker named Edmond Albius from the island of Reunion, near Madagascar, figured out how to pollinate vanilla orchids by hand. The technique involved the use of a bamboo sliver and a nimble turn of his thumb. The botanical ingenuity of this young boy enabled a global spice trade in vanilla. Albius’ method is still used today, and Madagascar remains the world’s chief producer of vanilla.        

Outside of the tropics, vanilla plants can be grown indoors. Vanilla planifolia is the most widely grown variety, usually started from shoots. Consider growing your own. They’re easy to find online and moderately priced. It grows as a vine, so it will need a trellis for support. You can safely trim your vanilla if it grows too long. A south-facing window with filtered light is the ideal spot to grow vanilla. You’ll need to maintain a warm temperature year-round. Use a potting mixture with the following ratio by volume: 60 percent soil, 20 percent sphagnum moss, 10 percent sand and 10 percent perlite. Try to keep the mixture a little bit moist, but don’t over water. Spritz lightly every few weeks. Growing vanilla orchids is an exercise in patience. Your orchid should produce creamy yellow-green blossoms in four to five years. The yearly bloom cycle lasts about a month. Individual blooms last only six hours, so pay close attention. They bloom in the morning and fall off by mid-afternoon. If successfully pollinated by hand, green pods will appear in a week to 10 days. The pods will be ready for harvest in six to nine months. After an additional six-month curing, you’ll be able to enjoy your own home-grown vanilla.      

Rachel and Ivan Minnis are avid gardeners. They live in Leavenworth. For more information, visit The Minnis Rose Garden on Facebook. Contact them at rnlyes@hotmail.com