Growing vanilla has long seemed like an impossibility for many gardeners, but the truth of the matter is that if you can successfully grow orchids, then your odds of being able to grow your own vanilla plants are really good. The highly prized vanilla pods are actually the fruit produced by one of three vanilla orchids, which include the following:
- Vanilla tahitiensis
- Vanilla planifolia
- Vanilla pompon
Vanilla orchids grow as vines, often climbing up other trees when growing wildly. They will also happily grow up bamboo poles or a trellis.
Like all orchids, vanilla orchids require very specific growing conditions. If you’ve ever brought an orchid home and watched it slowly start to wither, then you are well aware of just how finicky they can be about their environments. There are five primary focal points that growers of vanilla orchids need to be aware of:
- Potting medium
1. Water. One of the largest concerns that you’ll face will be the fine balancing act that is require with moisture levels. Like all orchids, vanilla orchids tend to prefer environments that are much more humid. While high levels of humidity are optimal for vanilla orchids, too much moisture can lead towards viral and fungal infections. While orchids are exposed to high levels of humidity and frequent rain showers in their natural environments, they are also exposed to high levels of evaporation and high temperatures that combine with a steady breeze to reduce water excesses. While avoiding soggy feet for your orchids is definitely a concern, another issue is allowing the roots of the orchids and the planting medium to dry completely out. It may take some trial and error in order to find that moisture sweet spot, and it is recommended that you start with some inexpensive orchids before investing in your vanilla orchids.
2. Temperature. Orchids grow in the tropics, which mean that their preference is for temperatures that do not dip below 65 degrees Fahrenheit. If you do see a temperatures dipping too low or too close to 65 degrees, then you’ll notice them dropping their blooms, which is a problem when growing vanilla as the pods form from each flower. Try to keep temperatures at a steady 75 degrees, using a heater and humidifier combined, if necessary, in the winter months.
3. Container. The type of container that your vanilla orchids are potted into can have a huge impact on their ability to thrive. The best containers will be those that have been specifically designed for growing orchids, as they typically have aeration holes on the circumference of the pots. They also tend to have trays underneath them in order to catch the water that might run off from the orchids. Keep in mind that the right sized container is also important, because the roots of all orchids require good air circulation in order to stave off rot.
4. Potting medium. Your vanilla orchids should not be planted in any type of potting soil, for a few reasons. Potting soil is excellent at retaining root moisture, but it can do too good of a job and leave the vanilla orchids with soggy roots. Soggy roots quickly lead to root rot and fungal and viral infections. Additionally, potting soil can smother roots that require good air circulation. Charcoal and pebbles, along with Styrofoam pellets, are often used as potting media for orchids, but you may have better luck with wood chips or pebbles alone. The goal of the potting media is not necessarily to provide nutrients and moisture to the plants, but more to provide them with a source of support as they grow.
5. Lighting. Orchids grow in dappled sunshine in jungles and other tropical zones, which means that they require at least six hours of indirect natural light. Failing the presence of natural light, you may have good luck with growing lights. It is important to avoid placement of your vanilla orchids in a spot that gets full and direct sunlight as this can rapidly dry out the plant and also scorch its leaves.
Orchid Lighting Requirements
The right lighting can sometimes be a bit tricky to perfect, but with a bit of research and some trial and error, you’ll soon land on the right combination. Keep in mind that if your current lighting is not suitable for your vanilla orchids, there will be some noticeable telltale signs of distress from the orchids.
If your orchids are getting too much light, you’ll notice the following issues developing:
- Leaves that are warm when touched. Orchid leaves should feel cool to the touch.
- Leaves that have noticeable brown spots or edges.
- Leaves that are turning yellow and dropping off of the plants.
- Leave that are starting to develop a reddish green hue to them.
If your orchids are getting too little light, you’ll notice the following issues with them:
- Leaves that are dark green and dull. A healthy orchid will have light green and glossy leaves.
- The root system will be stringy and thin.
- The orchid will just look unhealthy.
- If your orchid hasn’t bloomed in some time, then that is an indicator that something is wrong.
It is important to remedy lighting issues because too much direct sunlight can rapidly deteriorate the condition of the plant and lead towards the ultimate loss of the plant.
Fertilizing Vanilla Orchids
It is important to fertilize your vanilla orchids, but just like everything else associated with orchids, it is important that you are careful not to feed them more fertilizing than they are able to metabolize. Too much fertilizer can burn the roots and lead towards total loss of the plants. While year-round fertilization is important, it is vital that you fertilize them more when they are flowering and pods are growing. Be sure to flush the roots of your orchids with fresh water every six months so that you can remove a buildup of fertilizer salts that would otherwise start to burn the plants.
Keep a log of when you fertilized the vanilla orchids, and of how much fertilizer you added to them. Also keep track of when the plants start to bloom so that you can best prepare to nurture them through the development of the vanilla pods.
Keep your orchids in an area where the roots are able to get plenty of circulating air. Some find that a fan set on its lowest setting can offer the orchids exactly what they need, without drying the roots out. A cool mist humidifier can also offer the increase in humidity that the plants need. There are specially designed humidity trays that can be placed beneath orchids in order to aid with the increased humidity levels that they require. Make sure that the vanilla orchid’s roots aren’t touching the water, and keep the trays topped up as the water evaporates.
Ensure that you have plenty of space to devote to your vanilla orchids, because they can grow up to twenty-six feet tall! When the flowers open, you will have to pollinate by hand, unless you have the plants growing in an area where bees are able to access them.
After being successfully pollinated, you will notice the formation of a long green pod growing from each flower. Pods can be vine ripened or can be removed from the vine prematurely and ripened in the direct sunlight until they are dark brown in color.
Once the pods have dried out, they can be crushed or used whole. Vanilla extract is easy to make by allowing whole pods to add intense flavor and aroma to alcohol.
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