Growing Vanilla on Kauaʻi

Part 1: What we did at first…

We’ve been grow­ing vanil­la here on Kauaʻi since 2004. We start­ed out small, as hob­by­ists with a vine my grand­moth­er received as a gift in the 70’s. She plant­ed it out by an old steel shed where it like­ly served as a minor gar­den con­ver­sa­tion piece. My grand­moth­er loved to gar­den, knew a lot about plants, and prob­a­bly would have loved to grow vanil­la pods, but she nev­er did. She moved to a sec­ond house near­by in the late 70’s, and the gar­den here was left to the ten­ants. The vine was ignored for all those decades, climb­ing first an avo­ca­do tree, then an African tulip (a kind of fast grow­ing inva­sive tree) which is where it was when this place came into our care in 2003.

At first, we put big chunks of the vine under a cou­ple of lychee trees, and before long new vines were rapid­ly grow­ing up the trunk. When they even­tu­al­ly flow­ered (it takes a cou­ple of years) we pol­li­nat­ed the flow­ers we could reach, climb­ing the tree and using an orchard lad­der as need­ed. Our first few har­vests were small, and I began by sim­ply dry­ing the pods in a food dehy­dra­tor. This result­ed in a sur­pris­ing­ly good qual­i­ty cured pod, and so I was curi­ous about the var­i­ous meth­ods used to cure vanil­la and won­dered if the time and labor of the tra­di­tion­al “bour­bon” method was real­ly nec­es­sary. After sev­er­al years of research and exper­i­men­ta­tion, I am still refin­ing and improv­ing our cur­ing method, which I plan to dis­cuss in this series.

The actu­al grow­ing of vanil­la is pret­ty darn easy. The vines prop­a­gate eas­i­ly, you just have to cut a good length of it and pro­vide a suit­able envi­ron­ment. Nothing much both­ers it, it does like to be moist most of the time, but it will put up with dry spells if it’s prop­er­ly root­ed in the mulch. That means it does­n’t need irri­ga­tion here (we get around 60–80 inch­es a year) which is a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor. They love to grow up trees, and will grow as high as they can, well up into the crown of an 80-foot tree. We have a few we have let do this and it’s magnificent.

I ini­tial­ly exper­i­ment­ed with the idea that the vine could be allowed to grow well out of reach, but the low­er sec­tions could be pol­li­nat­ed and pods har­vest­ed. There is a lim­it to the num­ber of pods a vine can sup­port, and arti­fi­cial pol­li­na­tion can lead to over-pol­li­na­tion and fruit that is too small if you’re not careful. 

The idea was that the huge vine could sup­port a few real­ly dense­ly-pol­li­nat­ed racemes in the low­er reach­es. This worked well in a cou­ple of cas­es, but it soon became clear that this was not a viable approach to sus­tained pro­duc­tion. A sin­gle node of a vanil­la vine can only either flower or branch once, so once the low­er parts of the vine had flow­ered, only the third-year nodes that had not flow­ered could flower. As the sea­sons pass, these 3rd-year nodes are high­er in the tree. Although I was will­ing to do some lad­der-assist­ed pol­li­na­tion, it’s not sus­tain­able, and way too much effort to accom­plish across sev­er­al vines.

In about our 4th year, I decid­ed to build a trel­lis for the vines so they could be more eas­i­ly cared for and har­vest­ed. I found a suit­able spot under a lychee near our dri­ve­way and built a sim­ple frame out of some bam­boo we had grow­ing. I has seen pic­tures of vanil­la vines grow­ing in a plan­ta­tion, and they were just draped over a pole. I placed vine cut­tings at the base of every ver­ti­cal leg of the frame and with­in a cou­ple of weeks, the new growth was cling­ing it’s way up the bam­boo. Vanilla is like oth­er arbo­re­al orchids and prefers to grow on a liv­ing tree, the roots adhered to the bark, but not pen­e­trat­ing it. As the vanil­la shoots climbed up the bam­boo, the roots wrapped around and clung to it, affirm­ing the appro­pri­ate­ness of my choice of materials.

Every year, I built a new trel­lis, plac­ing them in var­i­ous loca­tions try­ing to find the kind of sit­u­a­tion the plant liked most. Under a tree is too shady, out in the open works, but the plant looks a lit­tle bleached in the sun. Best is a sit­u­a­tion that is open to one side, shady to the oth­er so the plant is get­ting some strong light, just not all day long. With our trel­lis­es, the vanil­la pod pro­duc­tion increased a lot, and it was a lot eas­i­er to pol­li­nate the flow­ers and gen­er­al­ly keep things cared for.

Next: Ripening and har­vest­ing the pods…

19 thoughts on “Growing Vanilla on Kauaʻi

  1. Hello i want to know,want the vari­ety of vanil­la you prod­uct vanil­la planifolia..or vanil­la tahiten­sis ..? Thank you
    David

    1. It’s all vanil­la planifolia.

  2. Hi Roland
    Interesting stuff. A bit sur­prised to find you “farm­ing” as I knew you as a musi­cian. I wish you a good har­vest­frombpetoskey Michigan-annie

    1. Hi Annie, nice to hear from you! I got out of the music biz a while ago, final­ly end­ed up on my grand­par­en­t’s land on Kauai. I hope you are well!

      1. Thanks and all the best to you!

  3. Hi I am on Kauai for a week is there a way to buy your vanil­la beans local­ly? Bonnie

    1. Hi Bonnie,

      We don’t sell our beans in any stores, but you can arrange to come by the vanillery and get them direct­ly from us. Email me at [email protected], we are around Wed — Sat, but I’d like to arrange a time for you to come by. Thanks!

  4. I live on Kauai and have to work on Friday’s. Is it pos­si­ble to do a tour on Saturdays or Thurdays ?

    1. Yes, it’s possible…email me with when you’d like to come by: [email protected]

      –Roland

  5. I would like to know the best way to store vanil­la beans once the vac­u­um pack is opened.
    I usu­al­ly don’t have much luck stor­ing the beans once I have opened the pack so I end up mak­ing vanil­la sugar
    because I don’t want the beans to spoil.
    Thank you

    1. What spe­cif­ic prob­lems have you had with the beans and how were you stor­ing them?

      The pri­ma­ry issue with stor­ing vanil­la beans is con­trol­ling the mos­ture in the container.

      Vanilla beans are com­mon­ly stored in an air­tight con­tain­er like a small jar with a lid or stop­per and that works pret­ty well. You will want to choose a con­tain­er that is as small as pos­si­ble so you min­i­mize the amount of air you are includ­ing. This is one rea­son the vac­u­um pack is good. They should last quite a long time like that. I have beans in a small vial (like a test tube) with a cork stop­per that have been in there for over 5 years, and they’re doing fine, although a lit­tle dry.

      Beans that you are plan­ning to use whole for cook­ing need to be pro­tect­ed from dry­ing because you want to keep the sup­ple qual­i­ty of a grade A bean. If you’re going to make extract and for some rea­son don’t want to use the beans right away, dry­ing is less of an issue, you real­ly don’t care if they dry out, the fla­vor and aro­ma will still be there for the extract.

      Beans that have spoiled (typ­i­cal­ly, this means mold) can usu­al­ly be sal­vaged. If it’s white, fluffy mold it’s not a big deal, just wipe it off. Beans with black mold should be dis­card­ed. If they have dried out too much to be used whole, use them to make extract. Putting them in sug­ar (which pulls the mois­ture out of the beans), as you are doing, is anoth­er alternative.

      All that said, I don’t rec­om­mend stor­ing whole vanil­la for a long time. It should be used with­in a year for best results.

  6. Hi There,
    I was won­der­ing if you sell the plant itself? If so, would you ship to the states?
    Kellie

    1. No, I’m sor­ry, the USDA requires I have a spe­cial license for that, which I don’t have. You can find ven­dors of live plants on Ebay.

  7. In your described method of ini­tial bean pro­cess­ing, how long can the beans be frozen with­out neg­a­tive impact on the remain­ing process­es. Some of my beans are fer­til­ized a month apart. Thanks

    1. As long as they are well pro­tect­ed against freez­er burn, a month or two in the freez­er is fine. I freeze some of my beans every year and don’t cure them until after all the oth­er beans have cured, so they are in the freez­er for 2–3 months.

  8. Hello Roland. Many thanks for your excel­lent and gen­er­ous advice on vanil­la grow­ing and cur­ing. I’m in Northern Australia and have about 250 beans in the freez­er await­ing cur­ing. Do I need to steep the frozen beans before sweat­ing and drying?

    1. Hi Rudi,

      Wow, that’s a good har­vest! My tech­nique with the frozen beans is to get a big pot of hot water (about 150°F) and drop the frozen beans in there. It will prob­a­bly take about 3 min­utes, enough to get them pret­ty warm. Drain them, then put them in 1 or 2 plas­tic bags. I use 1 gal­lon ziplock bags. If the beans fill the bag more than 3/4 full, I’d split them equal­ly into two bags. This is most­ly to make it eas­i­er to han­dle when mov­ing them in and out of the bag as described in the sweat­ing process.

      If you’ve got that many beans this year, you’ll like­ly have more next year. It’s best to use the hot water kill if your har­vest size is large enough, the qual­i­ty will be bet­ter than using the freeze method.

      If you want to send some pho­tos of your vanil­la and how you’re grow­ing it, I’d love to post an arti­cle on this site about it.

      1. Great, many thanks. I only froze them because they did­n’t ripen all at once. The first har­vest this time, was 140 beans. The rest came in drips and drabs. Maybe next year I will have enough at the first pick­ing to start cur­ing straight away and freeze only the late­com­ers for a sub­se­quent curing.
        I will make some pic­tures for you of my hum­ble vanil­la set up.
        It start­ed with a friend giv­ing me a cut­ting of his vine, which I then plant­ed under a large palmtree. Before long the vine grew all the way up this gigan­tic palm tree and start­ed flow­er­ing very high up far out of reach for pol­li­nat­ing and sub­se­quent pick­ing. I man­aged to get some parts of it down and plant­ed it so it could be acces­si­ble. It took a cou­ple of years before it start­ed flow­er­ing. After a few hits and miss­es, I got the hang of pol­li­nat­ing the beau­ti­ful flow­ers and had a small har­vest of maybe 20 beans that I cured the old fash­ion way. It was incred­i­bly labour inten­sive but still worth it. They turned out sur­pris­ing­ly well. I used the vanil­la beans to make typ­i­cal vanil­la flavoured desserts and I made some vanil­la salt which I use on man­goes and many oth­er trop­i­cal fruit.

        1. Sounds great, I’d love to see it.

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