Vanilla Is Anything But Vanilla

Vanilla companies seem to be lacking in their plant ID skills. I have yet see any vanilla product 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-esque." At the same time, it also explains the rather pricey nature of the world's only food orchid!

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 trunk of trees in an attempt to get as much light as possible. Some vanilla orchids have lost their leaves entirely, relying solely on their green, photosynthetic stems. 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 will not self-pollinate 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 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 very very low, and if they are not present, the flowers will not reproduce on their own. Because of this, orchid growers must hand pollinate all of the flowers. This is a labor intensive process that must be done at 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.

Photo Credit: Dream Beans Big Island Vanilla

Further Reading:
http://miosjournal.org/journal/2009/05/VanillaPlanifolia.html