Have you ever wondered what it takes to bring the sophisticated and aristocratic vanilla bean to you? I thought about it many times and figured if I ever had a greenhouse this would be the first plant I'd like to grow, so I wanted to learn more about it and this is what I found out.

Vanilla is a rare orchid that grows freely in hot and humid climates, but it seems that the island of Reunion, the famous home of the Bourbon roses, offers it the best conditions, thus yielding the highest quality of beans. The plant is finicky, like all orchids, and an avid climber. Once it grabs on to a tree (called a tutor) it quickly clambers all the way to the top, making the harvesting of the beans close to impossible. The growers have to walk through the grove and repeatedly pull the eager vines down, back within reach, an effort that the plants are happy to undo as soon as they are left to their own devices.

If that weren't enough, the vanilla flowers have only a one percent chance to pollinate naturally and all commercial growers pollinate them by hand. This has to happen within 12 hours of the flowers opening; after that the blooms fade and fall to the ground.

Vanilla farms don't look like tidy orchards with rows of trees neatly manicured but more like a rare jungle with high grasses and loud screeching tropical birds hiding in the lush foliage of the supporting trees. In this mish-mash of leaves the thick vanilla chords interweave with the rest of the foliage and hide the precious beans amidst the clutter, and the precious harvest looks so much like the leaves surrounding it that you have to be trained to find it.

After the flowers are pollinated the beans grow quickly and are ready for picking in about three weeks. At this point they are still green and thick and don't look like vanilla at all. They are placed in a box to sweat and then taken out into the sunlight for a few hours a day over a couple of weeks; last, they are placed to cure in the shade for another six weeks. After that they are finally ready to use.

Vanilla is like good wine, the older the beans the more intense their flavor as long as they are kept in an air tight container. Though the seeds - the vanilla caviar - are considered the best source for the delicious aroma the husks' flavor is just as intense, but because the outer shells are fibrous and almost impossible to chop they have to be scooped out of delicate desserts.

I always wanted to know what it would take to grow vanilla and now I do, so I would like to extend many thanks to vanilla growers all over the world who shared their expertise online.

Author's Bio: 

Main Areas: Garden Writing; Sustainable Gardening; Homegrown Harvest
Published Books: “Terra Two”; “Generations”
Career Focus: Author; Consummate Gardener;
Affiliation: All Year Garden; The Weekly Gardener; Francis Rosenfeld's Blog

I started blogging in 2010, to share the joy of growing all things green and the beauty of the garden through the seasons. Two garden blogs were born: allyeargarden.com and theweeklygardener.com, a periodical that followed it one year later. I wanted to assemble an informal compendium of the things I learned from my grandfather, wonderful books, educational websites, and my own experience, in the hope that other people might use it in their own gardening practice.