Vanilla Is Anything But Vanilla


Vanilla companies seem to be lacking in their plant ID skills. You so rarely see any vanilla products with the correct flower on the label. While I can't speak for everyone, I think I may have a hunch as to why most companies slap a white Phalaenopsis, Dendrobium, or any of the other orchid flowers that could remotely pass for being Vanilla on their products. At the same time, it also explains the rather pricey nature of Vanilla "beans."

The answer, I believe, lies in the flowers themselves. Vanilla is a genus of orchids that contains roughly 110 species that span the tropical regions of the globe. They are vining orchids, climbing trunks of trees in an attempt to make their bid for the canopy. Some Vanilla orchids have lost their leaves entirely, relying solely on their green, photosynthetic stems and roots. The species that gives us the highly coveted vanilla flavor is Vanilla planifolia from Central America.


Vanilla planifolia, like most other species of Vanilla, produce very short-lived, non-selfing flowers. They open up as the sun begins to rise and are mostly closed by afternoon. Vanilla are not self-fertile so if the flower has not been fertilized by afternoon, it will simply wither and fall off. Because of their ephemeral nature, it is probably hard for most vanilla companies to do the kind of photo shoot they would need to do their marketing. It is likely that they just fall back on orchids that kind of look like Vanilla and I am sure that outside of us botanical enthusiasts, no one really faults them for it.

The Vanilla reproductive strategy also lends to the pricey nature of real Vanilla "beans." In the wild, Vanilla relies on stingless bees for pollination. In most cases, Vanilla growers do not rely on the bees because, if they are present, fertilization rates are often extremely low. And, if the bees are not present, the plants will not reproduce on their own. Because of this, Vanilla growers must hand pollinate all of the flowers individually.

This is a labor intensive process that must be done at just the right time if it is to work. The resulting "bean" is not a bean at all but rather a large capsule filled with millions of dust-like seeds. The capsules themselves require about 6 weeks to fully mature and then sometimes as long as 9 months to properly cure and produce their characteristic vanilla flavor. So yes, I think it is safe to say that Vanilla is anything but vanilla.

Photo Credit: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]