Did you know that vanilla is an essence which comes from orchids, and is the only agriculturally profitable by-product extracted from orchids? Vanillin is harvested from the plant known as Vanilla Planifolia.
This flower is a native to Mexico, but Madagascar is now the largest producer in the world. The plant grows as a vine attaching itself to existing trees, and if left alone will climb to the highest point of the tree with hardly any flowers.
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The Life of The Vanilla Flower
One flower produces one fruit and the flavored compounds of vanilla are found there. They last only one day, sometimes less, so the vines have to be inspected daily, which is very labor intensive. The vine can be grown on wood such as trees in a forest, in a plantation on trees or poles, or in a shade house which increases the productivity.
Some Unique Species That Will Peak Your Interest
The Planifolia types are hermaphrodites, which means that they carry both male and female organs. To avoid self-pollination, there is a membrane which separates these organs. There is only one species of bee which can naturally pollinate the flower, and that’s the Melipone bee only found in Mexico. This one species of bee had a 300 year monopoly pollinating the Planifolia. They are also pollinated by the hummingbird.
How Hand Pollination Helped These Flowers Thrive
In 1836, a botanist named Charles Francois Antoine Morren, was sitting on his patio in Veracruz, Mexico, drinking coffee, and he noticed black bees flying around his flowers sitting on his table. He watched them working their way under the flap inside the flower and transferring their pollen.
He noticed that within a few hours the flowers closed up and a few days later, seed pods began to form. He immediately began experimenting with different ways to use hand pollination, but it wasn’t until 1841 that a slave named Edmond Albius who resided on Reunion, developed a simple hand pollination method which is still practiced today.
The Europeans and French transplanted the vines overseas, but could not find a substitute for the Melipone bee. Today they are cultivated so that they are at a convenient height for harvesting, and the only way they can pollinate the flowers is through artificial pollination.
The fruit, if left to ripen on the vine, dries out and the phenolic compounds crystallize giving it a diamond dusted appearance called “hoarfrost”. It is at this stage that it releases it’s distinctive smell. The fruit consists of tiny black seeds or specks.
How Fungi is Used To Help These Flowers Procreate
The seed from these organisms will not germinate without certain mycorrhizal fungi, so growers reproduce the plant by cutting off sections of the vine with five or six leaf nodes with a root opposite each leaf. The two lower leaves are removed and the plant is buried in loose soils at the base of a support. The remaining roots will cling to the support and will often grow down into the soil, which promotes the rapid growth of the plant under good conditions.
Interesting Characteristics of These Unique Orchids
The vanilla orchid is a perennial and can climb to 15 meters. It supports itself by the use of aerial roots. Its’ leaves grow between 8-25cm in length and they are fleshy and bright green in color. The flowers are yellow-green in color and are followed by 10-25cm long pendulous capsules, which are incorrectly referred to as “beans”.
They grow best in hot, humid climates with adequate rainfall and well drained soil enriched with organic material.
The curing of the pod gave the world the delicious aroma that is so well loved throughout the world. It’s not only used as a delicious scent, but also used to flavor many foods and drinks. This “essence” was first discovered by the Aztecs who used the seeds to flavor their cocoa drinks.