How to Plant, Grow and Care For Vanilla Orchids
Thinking of adding a new orchid to your garden, but aren't sure what to pick? A vanilla orchid might be exactly what you are looking for! In this article, gardening expert and orchid enthusiast Melissa Strauss takes you everything you need to know about vanilla orchids and their care.
It’s the plant whose seeds provide the flavoring for the world’s number one ice cream flavor. Its extract is a staple in every baker’s kitchen. It is the number one selling candle scent in the United States, and the most popular fragrance note for both women’s and unisex fragrances worldwide. It is also a real challenge to grow as a houseplant. But it’s a challenge with a wonderful reward.
Vanilla orchids are a genus of about 110 species, which occur naturally in tropical America, West Africa, tropical Asia, and New Guinea, with the most recognized species, V. Planifolia, native to Belize and Mexico. There are five species found in North America and each of them appear relegated to southern Florida.
The word Vanilla comes from the Spanish words for small and sheath or pod and simply means little pod. The name is appropriate if you’ve ever seen a vanilla bean. These little brown, wrinkly pods hold one of the most loved substances on Earth, cured vanilla seeds.
The process of bringing these pods to their desired state requires patience, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about how to care for these special orchids.
- 1 Classification
- 2 Flower Formation
- 3 Pollination
- 4 Propagation
- 5 Growing Vanilla Orchids
- 6 Maintenance
- 7 Popular Varieties
- 8 Pests and Diseases
- 9 Vanilla Beans
- 10 Final Thoughts
Vanilla Orchid Plant Overview
Plant Type Evergreen Epiphytes
Season Varies; Year-round
Pests Mealybugs, Spider Mites, Scales, Thrips
Exposure Bright Indirect Light
Diseases Phytophthora Fungi, Root and Stem Rot
Plant Spacing Individual Containers
Species about 110
Planting Depth Shallow
Soil Type Bark Mix
Native Area Predominantly Mexico and Belize
Height 50’-75’ over time
Plant with Palms and Succulents
Hardiness Zone 10-11
Watering Needs Once Per Week
Attracts Melipona Bee
Vanilla orchids have a reputation for being difficult to grow as houseplants. Understanding their growth habits and characteristics will help to give us a handle on the needs of these illustrious orchids.
Vanilla Orchids are evergreen, they do not lose their leaves seasonally, and the most common houseplant variety can grow as tall as 50’-75’ over time.
Other rarer species can grow to hundreds of feet in length. This vining plant is beautiful year-round with its fleshy stems and waxy green leaves, which can be solid or variegated.
Epiphytic orchids are orchids that grow in and on trees. They are essentially air plants, taking in the water and nutrients from the air around their exposed roots.
This means that their roots like a lot of air circulation, and they need excellent drainage. Without these factors, you will run the risk of root rot.
Vanilla orchids are monopodial. They grow constantly upwards on a central rhizome which runs vertically and attaches itself to a tree or other structure.
Monopodial orchids tend to produce a lot of aerial roots when compared to their sympodial cousins, which grow horizontally and produce individual pseudobulbs. Those pseudobulbs in turn, produce flowers.
Monopodial orchids send out flowers or flower spikes from their rhizome, in between sets of leaves. They are also more prone to creating keikis, or baby orchid plants.
The vanilla orchid’s flowers are very beautiful, but in a manner that is demure compared to some genera of orchids. All species flower in the same color family, with little variation. Their flowers are combinations of yellow, white, and green, depending on the variety.
Vanilla orchids produce a vine-like inflorescence upon which a cluster of buds form, and the flowers bloom progressively, with each flower lasting for only one day. While the individual flowers are short-lived, the plant has a long blooming period, with flowers continuing to open for about 2-3 months.
As one might expect, Vanilla flowers smell wonderful. Don’t expect a creamy confection from these blooms. The scent is one of white florals, reminiscent of jasmine, and just a little fruity.
The blooms consist of five petals and sepals, which are similar in size, shape, and color. The labellum of the vanilla orchid is long and deeply tubular, and the reproductive system of the plant lies inside of this labellum, which makes its pollination somewhat unique.
Vanilla orchids have both male and female reproductive parts, which makes them hermaphroditic. Most hermaphroditic flowers are self-pollinating, but this is not the case for the Vanilla orchid. There is a piece of tissue that covers the rostellum of the flower, which prevents self-pollination.
The flowers also have a unique situation where the reproductive parts of the plant are located deep inside the funnel-shaped labellum, and the flowers also are only open for a few hours, further complicating the situation.
These factors make it a particular challenge for pollinators to reach. Which leads us to the Melipona bee.
In the Wild
The position of the pollen in the vanilla orchid is such that the ordinary honeybee cannot reach it. In their native habitat exists a species of bee that has evolved to be able to find and retrieve the pollen of the vanilla orchid and then carry it to other flowers, which completes the pollination process necessary for the plant to produce its coveted pods.
The Melipona Bee is a larger bee. It’s about 11 mm long. This is similar to the size of the Italian and Carnelian honey bees, which are the most commonly kept bees in the United States and Europe.
That may seem quite small, but it’s actually on the larger side for bee species. Another interesting characteristic of the Melipona bee is that they are entirely stingless!
To my fellow beekeepers, yes, I have searched to see if these bees are available to add to my yard, and sadly, they are not. However, I encourage you to look them up because they are fuzzy and adorable.
Vanilla beans are now grown commercially in places like Madagascar, Tahiti, and Indonesia, among other places. Tahitian vanilla beans are the rarest and are the most prized by pastry chefs worldwide.
The seeds from Tahitian Vanilla beans fetch a hefty $600 per kilogram, making them the second costliest spice, just behind saffron which has the claim to fame of being more expensive by weight than gold.
Needless to say, the landscape and climate of Tahiti produce some of the most delicious vanilla. It’s a tropical paradise. However, there are no Melipona bees native to Tahiti or any of these other places. And so, in the 1800’s a man named Edmond Albuis discovered a method of hand pollinating that made it possible for Vanilla beans to be produced commercially outside of their native habitat.
The process of hand pollination sadly, usually does involve tearing the lovely blooms, but it is for a worthy cause. I have never carried out this process myself, but I have watched the pros in action.
Although it appears to be a simple process when done by someone experienced, it does require a thorough understanding of the parts of the flower and the way it must be manipulated to move the pollen from the pollinia to the pistil.
There are a handful of methods to propagate monopodial orchids, the most complicated of which is by seed. Because of the desirability of their seeds and the complicated process, most vanilla orchids are not propagated this way, but we will still address it here.
The word keiki is the Hawaiian word for baby. It is also the word used for small plantlets that orchids produce which can be removed and grown as new plants, identical to the parent plant. This is the easiest way to propagate a vanilla orchid, but it can only be done when the plant produces a keiki; they can’t be forced.
Keikis are a great way to ensure that you are getting a carbon copy of the parent orchid, as growing from seed does not always guarantee the same result. The unpredictability of this method makes it inconvenient for commercial orchid growers.
In the commercial orchid business, most propagation is done by cuttings. Gardeners refer to this as division. This is the process of dividing an orchid plant into two or more cuttings and rooting them to produce separate plants from each cutting.
Division allows for a number of plants to be propagated at the same time while still making sure that they are identical to the parent plant, which makes sense as they are literally parts of the parent orchid, so they share the same DNA.
To divide a vanilla orchid, portions of the vine are cut between leaf sets in a way that each section has at least two nodes, but preferably six or more. The longer the cutting is, the sooner it will produce flowers. Remove the bottom leaves and place each cutting into a pot of moist peat moss, burying it past at least the first node.
Rooting hormone isn’t necessary, but it may speed the process by a small margin. It will take a larger cutting from 2-3 years to root and flower. Shorter cuttings may take up to 4 years. This seems like a long time, but it is faster than growing vanilla orchids from seed.
Orchid seeds are incredibly small. They are vulnerable to fungi and bacteria. This makes germinating them a particularly difficult process. In nature, Orchids have a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi, which they attach to.
The fungi provide energy to the seeds, as they are so tiny, they do not contain their own endosperm.
Replicating the natural process of symbiotic germination of orchid seeds requires a sterile laboratory environment. Since most hobby gardeners don’t have easy access to one of those, I won’t go into detail on this method.
For most of us, it is not a feasible or desirable way to grow orchids. Fortunately, for the brave gardener, there is an alternative way to grow orchids from seed at home.
If you have determined that your aim is to grow a large number of orchid plants, and you don’t care how long it takes, Asymbiotic germination is the way to go.
The most common method used is called ‘Flasking,’ as it involves placing the seeds, along with a nutrient-rich substance, into a glass bottle or flask. In this way it is protected from bacteria and fungus while it goes through the germination process, and until it is large enough to survive on its own.
There are a couple of issues with this method that makes it less desirable than division. First, orchid seeds are unpredictable. They don’t germinate easily, and there is no guarantee that the offspring will be exactly like the parent plant.
They also take a very long time to mature when grown from seed. Think along the lines of 4-5 years at minimum. But it can be done by the determined gardener.
Growing Vanilla Orchids
However, they are beautiful plants, and in recent years they have been easier to find both online and at local nurseries. In particular, V. planifolia has been showing up regularly at nurseries in recent years.
They have some particular needs that make them better suited to the outdoors or a greenhouse than inside the home, but if you find a good balance, they will reward you handsomely.
The epiphytic nature of Vanilla orchids makes them poorly suited to conventional potting mixes. Standard all-purpose potting soil will hold too much water, causing Vanilla orchid’s roots to rot. Root rot is the prevailing cause of orchid death, so managing your plant’s moisture levels is very important.
Orchid bark is the preferred potting medium for vanilla orchids. These mixes are heavily reliant on bark, with a combination of other elements such as charcoal, perlite, sponge rock, and pumice.
If you prefer to create your own potting mix, 60% bark is a good place to start. Keep all particles fairly large, as this will ensure proper drainage.
Equally as important as the potting media is the type of container you pot your orchid in. There are three types of orchid pots that are widely available.
Terracotta Orchid Pots
These are wonderful as they have the benefit of clay pots which wick water away from the plant’s roots, keeping them from getting soggy, and they have extra drainage holes to let any excess water filter out, as well.
Wooden Orchid Baskets
These baskets are wonderful for outdoor orchids as they do the best job of simulating the natural environment. They have wide openings that allow water to pass out and plenty of air to circulate. The only disadvantage is that they can be a bit messy. Particles of potting mix tend to fall through the wide openings, which can mean quite a mess on watering day.
Ceramic Orchid Pots
These are the most decorative of the three types, and come in many colors, often with pretty patterns of drainage holes. These work well for indoor orchids, as long as you don’t allow water to sit in an attached dish.
Orchid roots should not sit in water. Another factor to consider when potting vanilla orchids is that they are climbing vines, so they will need some sort of permanent support upon which to grow. A small trellis works well, as will a moss pole.
Orchids do not need to be planted deeply. In fact, if you live in a tropical zone, they do not need to be planted at all. If there is no risk of freezing, you can tie your orchid to a tree, and it will live there happily as in any manufactured container.
When potting, the central root system should be placed into the container and gently filled in around with orchid bark. Depth is not as important as security.
When potting, it is a good idea to use orchid clips or wire to secure them in place until they have rooted to the potting mix and/or container. Orchid roots naturally look for something to hold onto, so eventually, they will grow on the container.
Vanilla orchids have standard light requirements in terms of orchids. They can tolerate some direct light in the morning, but they really prefer to be out of direct light. The ideal light situation is to mimic the light conditions under a tropical canopy. Bright, filtered, or indirect light, all day, is best.
By paying attention to your orchid’s foliage, it should be easy to determine whether the plant is receiving the right amount of light. An orchid that is getting too much sun will have paler leaves and slow growth. An orchid that is not receiving enough light will have plenty of dark green growth, but it may have thinner stems and is unlikely to flower.
Vanilla orchids, like most orchids, should be watered once per week when kept indoors. The roots like moisture, but they need to dry in between waterings.
When you water your vanilla orchid, keep in mind that the aerial roots need water too. These are the small roots that grow from nodes, which help the orchid attach itself to the supporting structure.
I highly recommend keeping your vanilla orchids outdoors when the weather is warm enough. They need a lot of air circulation, and most orchids are heat lovers, so they truly thrive more outdoors than in. If you move your orchid outdoors, expect to water it about twice as often.
Climate and Temperature
Vanilla orchids are tropical plants, and they like warm weather. These orchids like to be warm during the day and at night, no cooler than 50°F. These plants will not survive a freeze, so it’s best to bring them inside if there is any possibility.
Humidity is where vanilla orchids are the highest maintenance. All orchids thrive in humid conditions. While phalaenopsis orchids can be satisfied with 50% humidity, which is easy to create in a bathroom or kitchen, vanilla orchids need closer to 80% humidity. It is difficult to replicate this indoors, nor would you want to have 80% humidity in your home.
There are two ways to supplement humidity to keep your vanilla orchid alive. The first is with a humidifier. A humidifier will add the needed moisture to the air and can be concentrated in one area of the home.
A more convenient method is to use a pebble tray. This is a small dish of water and pebbles that an orchid pot sits atop. The water evaporates into the air around the orchid.
However, it would be difficult to attain the level of humidity that vanilla orchids need using this method. It works better for orchids that need only a slight elevation in humidity.
Orchids love to be fertilized. During their growing period, an orchid can be fertilized every one to two weeks. This means that you should fertilize your orchid nearly every time you water. During the plant’s dormant period, after the blooms have fallen, you can reduce fertilizing to once every three weeks.
Specialty orchid fertilizers have the right blend of nutrients to keep your plants happy and thriving. You can also use a balanced all-purpose fertilizer diluted to half strength as an alternative.
Adding a solution of Epsom salt or bonemeal to your fertilizing regimen a few times a year can be a major bloom booster and help fortify your orchid’s roots.
Aside from the above, there is little maintenance to be done with a vanilla orchid. The most important aspect of maintenance is observation.
The best defense against pests and diseases is a keen sense of observation. You should regularly inspect your orchid’s leaves and any external roots for signs of damage. Catching root rot early, in particular, is vital to the survival of an orchid.
Orchids do not require regular pruning to promote new growth. As I mentioned, some varieties of vanilla orchid can grow very tall. You may choose to contain and propagate your orchid when it exceeds the size that you are comfortable with, but it is not a necessity.
It is a good practice to remove the spent inflorescences, but only after they have turned brown and dry. Any green portion of the orchid should be left intact.
If an orchid is damaged by pests or disease, it is best to remove all affected tissue. The reason for this is twofold: You want to prevent the spread of potential rot and illness, and removing diseased foliage allows the plant to refocus energy to produce and maintain new growth.
There are several popular varieties of vanilla orchid, with the Flat Leaf Vanilla being both the most popular and most commonly seen. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular varieties that gardeners will try to grow at home.
|botanical name Vanilla aphylla|
|sun requirements Filtered Sunlight|
|hardiness zones 10|
Vanilla Aphylla is the most common leafless species of vanilla orchid. Its vines can grow extremely long, but they have very small, inconsequential leaves. For most of the year, they are just a simple vine. This orchid blooms in spring, summer, and fall. The blooming period is worth the lack of visual interest through the winter.
The flowers arrive in groups of 3 or 4 on a short inflorescence. The petals and sepals of the bloom are a cheerful chartreuse color. The labellum of this orchid is creamy white with fine hairlike structures that appear to spill forth from within. There is just a hint of pink in the center of the lip.
|botanical name Vanilla chamissonis|
|sun requirements Filtered Sunlight|
|hardiness zones 10-11|
Chamisso’s vanilla orchid produces the rarest and largest vanilla bean pods. These enormous pods fetch prices upward to $800 per pound, but I hear they are absolutely worth it. It is unlikely to find one of these orchids for purchase, but they are spectacular. The vines can reach up to 1400 feet long.
The flowers are lovely and star-shaped. Uniform petals and sepals stretch out to form this 5-pointed star. They are pale to medium green, growing a bit darker toward the ends. The labellum is deeply fluted, white, and ruffled at the edge with a deep golden glow from within.
Flat Leaf Vanilla Orchid
|botanical name Vanilla planifolia|
|sun requirements Filtered Sunlight|
|hardiness zones 10-11|
This is the most common species of vanilla orchid, as well as the easiest to find in local nurseries. Most of the vanilla purchased in stores comes from this species of orchid due to its high vanillin content.
Although it is considered endangered, it is farmed quite prolifically. Its appearance in nature is rarer. This variety is also known as Bourbon Vanilla.
These lovely vines are not as large as some others, making them better suited to being kept as houseplants. The flowers only bloom for one day, and they are greenish yellow with a concentration of yellow in the interior of the labellum. Planifolia comes in a variegated variety as well, which has lovely leaves that are striped with white at the edges.
|botanical name Vanilla tahitensis|
|sun requirements Filtered Sunlight|
|hardiness zones 10-11|
This pretty polyploid species is a hybrid of V. planifolia and V. odorata. It was used by the Aztec people, and brought back to Europe by Spanish Explorers, and then on to Tahiti in 1848, where it was cultivated for commercial use. It has a flavor that is distinguishably different from V. planifolia and fetches a higher price as a result.
The Tahitian vanilla orchid has stems that zigzag as they climb. They produce long, flat, pointed leaves. The flowers are similar to Chamisso’s in that they have long thin petals and sepals in a pale green to yellow shade. They also have a similar star shape, if a bit more delicate. The labellum is pale yellow and the outer edge curls under.
West Indian Vanilla
|botanical name Vanilla pompona|
|sun requirements Filtered Sunlight|
|hardiness zones 10-11|
The beans from this species are rare, as the plant does not produce as prolifically as planifolia, so they are not cultivated as widely. They are, however, larger and contain more vanillin, so they are coveted in culinary circles.
The vines are sturdy, and the leaves are oblong and pointed at the ends. The flowers are large and exotic in appearance. The petals and sepals are long and thin, in a yellow-green shade, and the labellum is scooped and dark yellow.
Pests and Diseases
As it turns out, insects love the flavor of vanilla as much as we do! There are quite a number of pests that seek out vanilla orchids for their sweet sap, much to the displeasure of the commercial vanilla industry. We will focus more on the home pests that affect orchids for the purposes of this article.
These little white fuzzy creatures would love to suck the life out of your sweet orchids. Mealybugs have a fuzzy appearance, and they reproduce rapidly, making their eradication complicated, as you have to treat them multiple times to eliminate all generations.
Mealybugs not only drain your orchids of valuable nutrients, but they also leave behind a sticky excrement upon which black sooty mold likes to grow, so they cause a combination of tiresome issues. If you notice a pile of these little fuzzy bugs, isolate the plant right away to avoid infecting other plants.
The best solution may be to simply leave your orchid outdoors for a bit. Mealybugs have a lot of natural predators, and they could disappear quickly if the right predator finds them. The black sooty mold will need to be wiped off by hand.
These tiny insects are more like spiders, and not so much like mites. They can be identified by the fine webs they leave on the undersides of leaves, which they like to snack on.
To eradicate these critters, wipe away their webs, and spray the plant with a solution of soapy water or dish soap and alcohol. Keep the plant isolated until you’re certain they are gone.
Scales are the most common of the orchid-eating insects, and they reproduce quickly, so they are a challenge to get rid of. They look like little brown or black blobs that cluster together under leaves.
An effective treatment for a minor infestation is to use an alcohol-soaked q-tip and simply wipe them away. Insecticides also work, but whichever method you choose, expect to repeat the treatment a few times to catch all generations.
These tiny flying insects love orchid sap as well. They are very tiny and difficult to detect until after the damage has been done. This damage will show up first as chlorotic spots on the leaves and eventually, stunted growth and wilting, dying leaves.
If your plant is in bloom, it is easier to detect these bugs, but since vanilla orchids only bloom for a day, that makes them more of a challenge. A severe infestation usually means the plant is lost. They are the most difficult pests on the list to eradicate. If you suspect a thrips invasion, break out the insecticide and treat it quickly.
Also known as Black Rot, this disease starts at the top of the plant and gradually works its way through the stem and leaves. It leaves behind a mess of mushy black tissue which cannot be revived.
This fungal disease is most common in times of prolonged, wet weather and too much shade. It tends to affect plants more in terms of farming than those kept as houseplants.
Fungicide application can prevent spread, but all affected parts should be removed and burned to prevent it from coming back.
Root and Stem Rot
Like all epiphytic orchids, vanilla orchid are prone to root rot. If not potted correctly, or if you are overwatering, you may find yourself with a case of this most unpleasant fungal disease.
Rotted roots will be dark brown and mushy. They will also be very vulnerable to infection. In progressed cases, the leaves and stems will yellow and begin to fall.
The best treatment for root rot in orchid plants is prevention. Proper potting and watering will go a long way in keeping this killer away. Once it has affected a plant, the best solution is to re-pot, remove all rotted tissue, and amend your watering schedule to avoid a recurrence. Once it reaches the leaves, though, most of the damage is done.
There is one final topic I want to touch on before wrapping up, and that is the one we probably all anticipate the most when bringing home a vanilla orchid. How wonderful would it be to harvest your very own home-grown vanilla beans? The process is not quite as simple as I once thought it would be, but it’s not impossible.
The first step, naturally, is to get your orchid to bloom and to catch those blooms in time to pollinate them. I highly recommend watching a few videos of the pollination process so that when the time comes, you know just what to do.
After being pollinated, the flowers will shrivel and fall off, and you will be left with a small green nub which will grow into a long green pod. Now for the hard part. These pods take about 6-8 months to mature. That’s a long time to wait, but if you’ve made it to the place where those pods are present, you are past the hard part.
When the pods are dark brown in color, the time is right to harvest them. From here, the curing process begins. There are four steps to this process.
Yes, you have to kill the beans. This is the term of stopping the ripening process of the beans. This causes the cell walls to release the enzymes and precursors to vanillin (the flavor maker).
Vanilla farmers do this by dunking the beans in hot water, but freezing works just as well, if not better if you’re dealing with one or two plants. As your pods ripen, place them into a container in the freezer. This will also preserve them until you have collected all of the ripe pods and are ready to move forward. They need a minimum of 24 hours in the freezer.
The beans need to sweat out moisture so that the chemical reactions to produce vanillin and glucose (which acts as a preservative) take place. This is done by bringing the beans to a temperature of 115°F and alternately putting them in a “sweat box” and a dehydrator.
This process lasts for about 18 days and by the end, the beans should be taking on a vanilla aroma, rather than the green and floral scent they started out with. They will also get nice and wrinkly.
The beans should now be allowed to dry completely. It is important to the flavor development that this process takes place slowly, so they shouldn’t be heated, they should be left exposed to the air in a place with good circulation but is protected from moisture.
You can expect this stage to last for 3-4 weeks. The beans will go from having smooth spaces between their wrinkles to being completely wrinkled.
This completes the curing process and takes at least 3 months. This is how long the beans should cure before use. You simply place the beans together in an airtight container and let them sit.
It’s quite a long process, and very involved if you consider that from the day your orchid blooms until the day your beans are consumable, almost a year will pass… and then you’ll be ready to start all over again! And if you decide to forgo the whole process, it’s totally fine to just enjoy the vanilla orchid for the beautiful plant it is!
Cultivating orchids is a challenging and rewarding pastime. It can be difficult to strike the right balance for optimal orchid health and flower production. Once that balance is struck, the reward is well worth the time and attention to detail. Regardless of the variety of vanilla orchid you choose to grow, it will bring both beauty and delicate flowers to your garden space.