Went out to the vanillery and was greeted with the sight of ripening beans! You get used to the beans growing for months, then all of a sudden…they’re turning.
This year seems a bit earlier than usual, but that could have been expected since the 2018 flowering season also started early. The flowering season in Hawaii starts in January and extends through June. April and May are the peak normally, but trips to the vanillery every morning need to happen for a full 6 months!
Picking the Ripe Beans
When the beans ripen they need to be picked right away because they develop quickly once the yellowing starts. We search the vanillery for ripened beans every 3 days or so to get the beans at the peak of ripeness.
Like most fruit, the sugar content starts to go up rapidly in the final stages of ripening. This sugar is in the form of glucovanillins that are the precursor to vanillin and related aromatics. Developing these aromatics is the most important goal in producing vanilla, so letting the sugars fully develop is critical.
We try to pick the beans when they are fully ripe, but not opened at the tip. As the beans ripen, they begin to split open to eventually release their seeds. The beans that open are still good from a fragrance and flavor standpoint, but cannot be sold as grade A or grade B as they tend to dry out too much and don’t meet the aesthetic standard of a graded bean. Ungraded beans are used to make our own vanilla extract. These in the picture are perfect, however, and will probably yield grade A beans after curing.
We are at the peak of the harvest season, and during this time, we are harvesting about a hundred beans out of the vanillery every two to three days. Choosing which beans to take requires some pretty sharp observation: the color change can be hard to see in the shady tangle of vines. The beans were pollinated almost a year ago, and a lot of vine growth has taken place since then, burying many of the brooms deep within the growth. In the dim light, it’s easy to mistake the gentle lightening that takes place as the bean matures for the clear signal of true ripeness.
Choosing the moment to harvest any one bean is a bit of a game of brinksmanship. We want the bean to be at the absolute peak of ripeness, but if you miss it or wait too long, the bean begins to split open, preparing to release it’s seeds. At that point, the vanilla pod cannot be sold as a whole bean, although it is still good for making extract. We’re looking for a strong orange-yellow color at the tip of the bean, along with a hint of the split beginning to form.
Oh, and watch out for the sap! Like many tropical plants, vanilla employs a chemical defense against foraging animals. This is due the presence of calcium oxilate crystals, which are small and sharp enough to get into the pores of your skin, causing minor but sometimes pretty painful irritation. During harvest, we’re careful not to touch the sap or get it on the skin. When handling freshly-harvested pods, latex gloves are used, as the sap is hard to avoid once the pods get into the harvest box.
In the first season of fruit in the vanillery, I let a couple of beans ripen naturally, as I sometimes do when they’re too small or overripe. When they ripen on the vine, they split open, turn black and eventually the tiny, tiny seeds come out. I guess if things are just right where those seeds fall, they will germinate and grow into new vines.
This is, in my experience, pretty unusual. Most of the time none of those seeds sprout, and the little vines that emerge aren’t tough like full-grown vanilla, they’re extremely delicate. It wouldn’t take much going wrong for that sprout to not survive.
Near one of the bamboo posts in the vanillery, it looks like the conditions were just right, because a whole cluster of little vines formed in that one spot. You can see that in this photo, although the seedling vines are tucked way in. They’re beginning to climb up the bamboo post and the other vines.
I wonder if these vines will be different? Almost all of the vanilla plants here came from a single vine my grandmother planted some 40 years ago. These new vines will have some genetic variation…who knows how much, though, because the pollen came from the same plant. We’ll see.
This morning I came across two racemes in the vanillery that had seven open blossoms on each of them! This is really quite unusual.
When the vanilla vines are really growing strongly, the flowering racemes can come out double or triple or more. Usually, the raceme is a single stalk of flowers with 1 — 20 flower buds on it. The buds will open usually one at a time over a period of several weeks until they have all opened.
When there is a huge amount of vitality in the vine, though, the raceme can include branches of racemes, making it possible for a large number of flowers to sprout from a single node. This is a very good thing, because each node can only produce once (if at all—most don’t): and it will be either either a new vine or a flower raceme.
Of course, not all the flowers on a raceme should be pollinated, it’s important to only pollinate as much as will develop into full-size pods. Pollinate too many, and you’ll end up with a lot of uselessly-small pods. But with so much vitality in the vine, the number of flowers you can pollinate increases. We’ll probably get 15 full-size pods on these big racemes, while a typical raceme will usually only produce 5–7.
Vanilla blossoming seems to come in waves: you’ll have days where the blossoming is sparse, and days like today, where nearly every raceme on all the vines has one or more flowers blossoming. I don’t know what governs these cycles, perhaps weather, perhaps the moon. We already know that the vines are quite sensitive to lunar cycles.
This morning, I pollinated 49 flowers in the vanillery. An impressively large number considering it’s age…this is really the first year we’re having flowers on vines that grew in the vanillery. Perviously, all the flowering was done by vines that were a couple of years old when they were transplanted in. The vanillery is finally coming in, but this is only the beginning.
I say today is the peak of the 2016 flowering season because in all, I pollinated 153 flowers today. Looking at the racemes out there now, I doubt we’ll have as big a day again this season. All the racemes that are going to emerge have done so by now.
Flowering took place several weeks later this year than last year. Not sure why, but there is a strong possibility it is due to a very dry winter here. Meteorologists are calling it a drought, although it wouldn’t resemble what most of the world calls such a thing.
Last week, the rains returned, lucky us, and spring weather is back to it’s soggy normal here. For us, these flowers mark the beginning of typically eight weeks of early-morning trips to the vines to do the pollination. Flowering in the vanillery was slow to get started, but it looks like it’s going to be good. This is the first year we expect to get a decent harvest out of it, and it’s going get better every year for several years.
It occurred to me today that counting new shoots might be a good way to monitor the flowering potential of the vanillery. I was inspecting the vines and thinking about ways to quantify the success of each planting. For each cutting we planted, most sprouted one new shoot, a few more than one. Enough time has passed so that some of the original new shoots have thrown off new shoots themselves. Since each node of the vanilla plant can either grow a new shoot or flower once (if at all), it is necessary to keep the vines constantly growing. Maintaining a good number of growing tips means more potential flowering locations for the next season.
First year vines are smooth and soft to the touch, especially the growing tip, which is quite soft and tender. As the vines age, they get darker, harder and end up being quite sturdy with a dull, waxy sheen. In the first year, the vines are going for distance, tending to climb as high as possible without wasting energy on side shoots. In the second or third season, the mature nodes are likely to branch or flower if there is sufficient vitality.
In march of 2015, I counted 38 growing tips in the vanillery.
While the first vanilla pods of the season are coming in, the first flower buds are also appearing. Some of these spurts of new growth will result in new vines, branching off of the mature vines, but most of these will form the flowering racemes. The early spring is when a lot of new growth occurs, and the vanilla farmer (me) watches with some apprehension as the flowering racemes appear (or not!) determining the size of the new season’s crop. In a week or so, the morning ritual of the hand pollination will begin.
The flowering season of 2014 was light for us, several areas never went to flower, so the 2015 harvest season will be small. One of the things we’ve learned about vanilla is that while it will grow lush and green in the shade, it requires part sun to come to flower. As the forest grows around the vines, they can end up in shade too deep to flower. This year, I cleared branches above and around the forest trellises to let more light in. We’re hoping for a better flowering season this year, and indeed it’s starting strongly.
Last year, I noticed a couple of very small vanilla shoots in the bed under one of my vanilla trellises. Looking closer, I realized that these were clearly the almost miraculous appearance of vanilla seedlings! I tried several internet searches to find out: was this common, had other vanilla growers reported this? I found no reports, nothing about finding or successfully producing a vanilla seedling or that a vanilla seed had germinated naturally. All I found was that it could be done artificially using a general technique for starting orchid seeds called “flasking,” which is basically creating sterile conditions for an orchid seed to grow.
And yet, here they were, 3 vanilla seedlings that had started spontaneously in the mulch under some of my vanilla plants. The one in the photograph here is the only one that was easily photographed, the rest were growing up a wooden trellis, too crowded in by other vanilla vines to be clearly seen. You can see that there is some damage to the stem near the ground, looks like some kind of nibbling creature got to it. Since it had rootlets developing, I decided to cut it and move it into the nursery where it could continue to grow.
I would guess that a big part of the reason this isn’t reported is that typical vanilla culture doesn’t support allowing the natural seeding process to occur. Vanilla pods (I don’t like calling them “beans” for some reason) are mostly harvested before they are botanically ripe because pods that have ripened and begun to open are of a lower grade. In any case, all the pods are harvested, split or not. Sometimes it happens that pods get overlooked and left on the vine, and I will sometimes leave a pod or two on the vine if they are small and have gone too far. These pods split open, become dark brown and dry and emit a delicious fragrance. Once you see this happen there is no wondering how vanilla as a scent and flavoring was discovered! The aroma is strong and easily detected several yards away from the plant.
As a hobbyist, I planted vanilla in the garden under trees on trellises, leaving the ground and surroundings alone. Vanilla is a forest plant, it wants protection from wind and sun, a lot of humidity, and a deep bed of mulch and humus in which to spread it’s roots. I like to think that the environment around and under my vanilla trellises is completely natural to the species, and therefore a viable location for seedling development. It seems the vanilla plants agree.
Vanilla is generally propagated vegetatively, it’s relatively easy and the resulting plant can be productive in the second year, occasionally the first. There is really no reason to do it otherwise, vanilla grows rapidly so there is always plenty of material to take cuttings from. I suppose that there are vanilla breeders out there that are working with crosses to see if other characteristics could be developed, but most vanilla growers aren’t so concerned with things like variety and genetics. There is almost no discussion of vanilla genetics on the web, it seems to be a relatively uninvestigated subject as far as I can tell. I wonder what that says about the genetic diversity of vanilla as cultivated worldwide?
There are two species of culinary vanilla, but well over a hundred species in the Vanilla genus, so the potential for hybridization is considerable. Vanilla orchids in general have been shown to be capable of hybridizing, but despite it’s importance, Vanilla planifolia (the main vanilla of commerce) has not been hybridized for the purpose of agriculture, at least not as far as I have been able to find. Vanilla x tahitensis (Tahitian vanilla) is a hybrid of Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla odorata, but it’s not known how that came about. The origins of Tahitian vanilla are a bit of a mystery, but the cross could have occurred naturally as these species share similar regions.
This doesn’t shed light on the genetics within the species, however. Are there local variants of vanilla in it’s natural range (Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean)? Probably, but I haven’t come across any discussion of this subject. What I do know is that even when a flower self-pollinates (as Vanilla often does) there will be some natural genetic variation. This means that the seedling vines I have here are going to be slightly different from the parent vines. I’ll be watching the vine that I have transplanted for any discernable differences, and report my findings here if anything interesting is noted.
(Some of the background information for this post comes from Vanilla Orchids: Natural History and Cultivation by Ken Cameron)
The Grade B Hawaiian vanilla beans are very nice. The beans are a good size, moist and have an oily shine. The aroma was very strong and sweet & reminded me of vanilla caramels. These vanilla beans are excellent quality.