Growing Vanilla on Kauaʻi

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.

 Harvesting

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.

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