Growing Vanilla on Kauaʻi

Part 1: What we did at first…

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This vanil­la vine is flow­er­ing in the crown of a 60-foot lychee tree.

We’ve been grow­ing vanil­la here on Kauaʻi for about 8 years. We start­ed out small, 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.

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These were some of the first vanil­la pods we grew in 2006.

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…

2 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

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