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

pws-first-day-1
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

seven-flowers-raceme-1
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.

raceme-branching
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