Our First Full-Scale Flowering in the Vanillery

The vanillery is exactly 3 years old now. This Spring, for the first time, we’re seeing full flowering on all the rows. This is great news for vanilla production here, our last two years have seen fairly small harvests. At this rate, there may be many hundreds of pods in here for next winter’s harvest.

Having this many flowers does require a significant time investment to get them all pollinated. This is the peak of the flowering cycle, and we’re seeing 1 – 1 1/2 hours of pollinating each morning, and that will keep up for 2 – 3 weeks. You definitely have to plan your morning around that.

A Natural Vanilla Nursery

The cluster of seedlings beginning to climb up.
The cluster of seedlings beginning to climb up.

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.

Grading the 2016 Harvest

full-harvest-aug-2016-3Took the beans out of their box today: it’s time to grade the harvest. The last beans came off the open-air drying racks two months ago, and they’ve been conditioning in their box since then. The beans are graded at this point, divided into the two grades by size, moisture content, and appearance.

The grade A beans are bundled and placed in the conditioning box for another 7 months, so there is a total of 9 months of conditioning after the drying is complete. The cured beans are sold to the culinary trade for direct use in recipes. They are brown in color and filled with fragrant, oily “caviar,” the seeds and pulp of the vanilla pod after curing. This is where the fragrance of the vanilla bean is concentrated.

The grade B beans in part will be sold as grade B beans, but most will be used to make extract. We make two different types of extract: one, a 100% local extract using Koloa Rum, made on the west side of Kauai. The second is an organic extract using Prairie organic vodka. The beans sit in the alcohol for a minimum of 6 months before we begin to sell them.

It’s a good harvest this year, I’m very proud of it! The beans are in beautiful condition.

We Add a Personal Weather Station

Queen’s Acres KHIKAPAA19

Today, we hoisted our Ambient Weather WS-1400IP sensor unit atop it’s mounting pole. I’ve always wanted to keep our own local weather data, and with the addition of this device, we are officially collecting data and sharing it on the net. We’re still working out some of the details, but this is a exciting development as far as I’m concerned.

We call the station “Queen’s Acres,” which is one of the names used for our neighborhood on the back side of Nonou Mountain near Kapaa. Our data stream is visible on Weather Underground at KHIKAPAA19

Peak Flowering Season 2016

Vanilla raceme with 7 open flowers.

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.

This is one of the big racemes early in the season, you can see it branching at several places.

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.

New Shoots

growing-tip-vanillery-oct-2014It 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.

First vanilla buds of the year

first vanilla buds

first vanilla buds close

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.

Hand-Cured Vanilla Beans and Extract from Kauaʻi

Today we’re rolling out our first products for sale! Over the years, we’ve sold these beans through friends, at local farmer’s markets and to local culinary professionals, and though we always intended to make our beans widely available, we always seemed to be too busy to make that happen. Well, now it’s time to offer our unique product to everyone on the internet.

Our first offerings will be very simple: Grade A and Grade B whole vanilla beans and 2-ounce bottles of our homemade Kauaʻi rum vanilla extract.

Vanillery Construction