Do you know anyone who has just one orchid? Personally, I know many people who have precisely zero orchids, and, among my friends in the rare fruit council, a great deal of people who care for quite a few. But I can’t think of anyone who owns just one orchid, and Dr. Alan Chambers – the RFCI’s most recent guest speaker – bets that you can’t either.
Dr. Chambers considers orchids to be one of those plants that quickly become an obsession, and they certainly did for him. As an assistant professor at the UF Tropical Research Education Center, Dr. Chambers focuses on identifying economically viable crops for southern Florida and creating novel cultivars to facilitate that quest.
You’re probably already familiar with some of the techniques scientists use to develop new cultivars. Remember Mendel and his peas? Yup, that kind of cross breeding is still used today, and is one of the six most common ways to “improve” a plant. The other five rounding out the mix are: mutagenesis, polyploidy, protoplast fusion, transgenesis, and genome editing. These techniques have been used many times to the advantage of humans. We’ve basically removed the seeds from bananas and watermelons; we’ve made the delicious end of a carrot large enough to bother with; and we’ve saved Hawaiian papayas from the ringspot virus. But the thing that’s so remarkable about our journey from identification to cultivation is, with respect to vanilla, we haven’t used any of these!
We cultivate and consume a wild-type vanilla plant, specifically Vanilla planifolia.
Now you might be thinking: well if it’s a wild-type plant it must be easy to grow. But remember: vanilla is an orchid; an orchid that must *hand* pollinated. This causes researchers like Dr. Chambers to question whether we can do better. Can we develop a cultivar that is more hearty? More prolific? Suitable for a region with a friendly pollinator already present? With vanilla demand outweighing supply, the industry welcomes research such as his.
Still, growing vanilla sounds fairly straightforward. Simply start with cuttings, and watch them crawl on pergolas and trees alike. Once mature, the plant will begin to flower. Following hand pollination, beans will develop in seven to nine months. Curing – the two-month, chemical-free process that includes the steps kill, sweat, dry, and condition – will bring out the aromas we think of when imagining vanilla. Which leaves you about a month to relax and enjoy your harvest before it’s time to moonlight as a pollinator again.
If you’re ready to give it a try, I encourage you to contact a local nursery or simply stop by the next RFCI meeting. After Dr. Chambers’ talk, many left with clippings from the vine of members Marie F. and Larry A. Plant swaps like these are one of the best ways to ensure you’re receiving a productive and delicious vanilla vine.
We’ll end with a quick and dirty tip on vanilla identification. Should you find yourself facing a vine without experts nearby, check out the flowers. Vanilla planifolia sports cream green colored flowers, while other, more common varieties, such as Vanilla pompona– which some enjoy even more than V. planifolia – have yellow flowers instead.
Special thanks to Dr. Chambers for sharing his expertise with the Rare Fruit Council International. See you next month!