Growing Vanilla on Kauaʻi, Part 2

Part 2: Ripening and harvesting the pods

Our first har­vest sea­son was car­ried out with very lit­tle prac­ti­cal infor­ma­tion. The research I was able to gath­er at the time was pret­ty short on detail, geared most­ly toward help­ing vanil­la farm­ers improve their crop and  deter­min­ing the via­bil­i­ty of vanil­la as a cash crop. We need­ed to know things like “when are the pods ripe?” “what do we do with fresh­ly har­vest­ed vanil­la pods?” “how are the vanil­la beans stored?” and oth­er prac­ti­cal ques­tions most vanil­la farm­ers did­n’t need explained.

Short of intern­ing on a vanil­la plan­ta­tion, we would need to go on what lit­tle was avail­able in the research, com­mon sense and exper­i­ment. So what if a few beans got wast­ed, it was at this point just a hobby.

How Vanilla Pods Ripen

When the vanil­la flower is pol­li­nat­ed, you can see the next day that the whole struc­ture of the flower has changed. The “stem” (which is actu­al­ly the ovary) of the flower length­ens and expands while the flower wilts and turns brown. If, on the oth­er hand, pol­li­na­tion has failed, the whole thing, stem, flower and all, drops off of the raceme. During the pol­li­na­tion sea­son, you know pret­ty well how many flow­ers have been suc­cess­ful­ly pollinated.

Over the next week or so, the fer­til­ized ovary con­tin­ues to grow rapid­ly until it reach­es full size. At that point, the growth stops and very lit­tle seems to be going on for the next 9–10 months. All the action is inside, where the seeds are devel­op­ing slowly.

vanilla pods ripening
ripen­ing vanil­la pods: the one on the left is ready for har­vest, and prob­a­bly be a grade A, the split one will yield a grade B bean

Here on Kauai, the final stage of ripen­ing begins in late February, with pods becom­ing ripe over a sev­er­al-week peri­od through April. At first, there is a gen­er­al light­en­ing of the col­or, then you begin to see the pod light­en at the tip. Within a few days, the tip begins to turn yel­low. That is the ear­li­est point at which we har­vest our vanil­la, but it’s not unusu­al for a ripen­ing pod to escape the notice of the pick­er and continue.

As the pod ripens, the yel­low area moves up the bean, and the tip begins to split in two. It is at this point that the fra­grance becomes very notice­able. (It’s often said that the pods don’t smell like any­thing until they’re cured, but that’s only because they’re usu­al­ly picked ear­li­er. We like to let them ripen a bit more than that.) As the ripen­ing con­tin­ues, the split opens up, and the split part of the pod dries and turns dark brown.

Eventually, over a peri­od of about a week, the split moves all the way up the pod and the pod turns com­plete­ly dark brown. It is some­what dry, sup­ple like a dried fruit, with the seeds exposed in an oily resin that is high­ly fra­grant. We call this a nat­u­ral­ly cured bean, and we have exper­i­ment­ed with pods cured this way to see how it com­pares to the hand-cured beans. I think that the hand cur­ing meth­ods orig­i­nal­ly mim­ic­ked the nat­ur­al cure but in a more con­trolled way and at an ear­li­er stage of ripen­ing. The cur­ing of vanil­la beans was not an acci­den­tal dis­cov­ery, but a log­i­cal improve­ment (from a human stand­point) on what hap­pens naturally.


The pods come in a few at a time over a peri­od of about two months. Every day, the vines are checked for pods ready to be picked. The pods are secure­ly attached to the raceme, so they must be clipped with a sharp shear. The cut end exudes a clear sap that is sticky and irri­tant. The cut pods are col­lect­ed in a box and brought in for the first stage of pro­cess­ing. That sto­ry is told in part 3.

Next: Curing the Pods into Vanilla

4 thoughts on “Growing Vanilla on Kauaʻi, Part 2

  1. Aloha,
    Read all your process­es on your site thanks for the info. We had a vine we let go in the jun­gle in 1999 It grows like crazy here in Nahiku , Maui. I was in the yard and kept smelling vanil­la. To my sur­prise it was vanil­la beans on the ground. They are a 100 feet up and pol­li­nat­ed some­how on its own. Any how we dried the beans all the nat­u­ral­ly and they are just dried. I will make extract. A friend has some vines he hand pol­li­nat­ed and we have a gal­lon ziplock full. Excited to use your method.
    So if I under­stand cor­rect­ly we can freeze them and wait until the last is har­vest­ed and do the whole process with all beans from this har­vest when they are all don?
    What hap­pens when I had a hand­ful from last month that are just dry­ing out with no killing? Can we do the process now after a month? We are gonna prop­a­gate the vines this year from the wild vines. So exciting.
    Thanks Doug

    1. Spontaneous pol­li­na­tion of vanil­la is pret­ty rare, I’ve seen it a few times, most­ly on vines that are high in the trees. A nat­u­ral­ly cured bean can be pret­ty fra­grant, you did the right thing by dry­ing it and mak­ing extract, beans like that don’t keep well.

      For the oth­er beans you have, freez­ing is some­thing I rec­om­mend if you are get­ting small har­vests (like less than 8 ounces), but if you have more than that ready to go, you should skip the freez­ing and put them in the killing bath (3 min­utes at 150ºF) then into the sweat as described on our vanil­la cur­ing pages.

      The cur­ing process needs to hap­pen with­in 24 hours of har­vest, if not, you risk get­ting off fla­vors. If the beans were dried, and smell OK, I’d sug­gest you con­tin­ue slow­ly dry­ing them, going through the trou­ble of doing the cure prob­a­bly would­n’t be worth the effort, since it is intend­ed to work with fresh­ly har­vest­ed beans.

  2. Hey Roland, I appre­ci­ate your knowl­edge and respect your effort in vanil­la cul­ti­va­tion. It is some­thing that I’ve always been fas­ci­nat­ed with, and have actu­al­ly been grow­ing vanil­la for the last few years now. I have a few vanil­la vines in my small green­house in Arkansas, and one of my vines which grows on an avo­ca­do tree has reached matu­ri­ty, and now has flower raceme for­ma­tions. I’m excit­ed about it, but con­fused as to what I should do since this is my first year of flow­er­ing. I would love it if you could inform me on what to expect dur­ing pol­li­na­tion and flower devel­op­ment, and also infor­ma­tion on water­ing and fer­til­iz­ing meth­ods dur­ing this time. Thanks, Klayton

    1. Hey, con­grats on get­ting vanil­la to flower so far out of its nat­ur­al range! That is quite an achieve­ment. If you haven’t already done so, you should check out any one of sev­er­al videos that show how to pol­li­nate vanil­la flow­ers. It usu­al­ly takes 1 month from the first appear­ance of the buds until the first flower will open. Each flower on the raceme will open in turn and last for only 1 day. If you’re going to pol­li­nate a flower, you have to do it on the day it opens.

      If the pol­li­na­tion is suc­cess­ful, you can tell the next day because it will hang on to the flower. In the days after that, the “stem” of the flower will start grow­ing and even­tu­al­ly become a green bean. The bean will take 10 months to mature, so you won’t need to do any­thing with it until then. You’ll see it yel­low when it ripens.

      It will be hard for me to advise you on grow­ing con­di­tions and feed­ing, your sit­u­a­tion is very dif­fer­ent. Vanilla orchids are epi­phytes, which means they get their nutri­ents out of the air. However, in a green­house sit­u­a­tion, the air does­n’t con­tain enough nat­ur­al dust to feed the plants, so prob­a­bly a foliar feed­ing will be need­ed. General instruc­tions on the foliar feed­ing of orchids should apply. Also, make sure the “feed­er” roots are going some­where where they will be in the mulch, kept moist and pro­tect­ed from the sun. Feeder roots are the ones that wan­der down, some­times over long dis­tances, look­ing for moisture…make sure they find it or your beans will nev­er develop.

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