Last year, I noticed a couple of very small vanilla shoots in the bed under one of my vanilla trellises. Looking closer, I realized that these were clearly the almost miraculous appearance of vanilla seedlings! I tried several internet searches to find out: was this common, had other vanilla growers reported this? I found no reports, nothing about finding or successfully producing a vanilla seedling or that a vanilla seed had germinated naturally. All I found was that it could be done artificially using a general technique for starting orchid seeds called “flasking,” which is basically creating sterile conditions for an orchid seed to grow.
And yet, here they were, 3 vanilla seedlings that had started spontaneously in the mulch under some of my vanilla plants. The one in the photograph here is the only one that was easily photographed, the rest were growing up a wooden trellis, too crowded in by other vanilla vines to be clearly seen. You can see that there is some damage to the stem near the ground, looks like some kind of nibbling creature got to it. Since it had rootlets developing, I decided to cut it and move it into the nursery where it could continue to grow.
I would guess that a big part of the reason this isn’t reported is that typical vanilla culture doesn’t support allowing the natural seeding process to occur. Vanilla pods (I don’t like calling them “beans” for some reason) are mostly harvested before they are botanically ripe because pods that have ripened and begun to open are of a lower grade. In any case, all the pods are harvested, split or not. Sometimes it happens that pods get overlooked and left on the vine, and I will sometimes leave a pod or two on the vine if they are small and have gone too far. These pods split open, become dark brown and dry and emit a delicious fragrance. Once you see this happen there is no wondering how vanilla as a scent and flavoring was discovered! The aroma is strong and easily detected several yards away from the plant.
As a hobbyist, I planted vanilla in the garden under trees on trellises, leaving the ground and surroundings alone. Vanilla is a forest plant, it wants protection from wind and sun, a lot of humidity, and a deep bed of mulch and humus in which to spread it’s roots. I like to think that the environment around and under my vanilla trellises is completely natural to the species, and therefore a viable location for seedling development. It seems the vanilla plants agree.
Vanilla is generally propagated vegetatively, it’s relatively easy and the resulting plant can be productive in the second year, occasionally the first. There is really no reason to do it otherwise, vanilla grows rapidly so there is always plenty of material to take cuttings from. I suppose that there are vanilla breeders out there that are working with crosses to see if other characteristics could be developed, but most vanilla growers aren’t so concerned with things like variety and genetics. There is almost no discussion of vanilla genetics on the web, it seems to be a relatively uninvestigated subject as far as I can tell. I wonder what that says about the genetic diversity of vanilla as cultivated worldwide?
There are two species of culinary vanilla, but well over a hundred species in the Vanilla genus, so the potential for hybridization is considerable. Vanilla orchids in general have been shown to be capable of hybridizing, but despite it’s importance, Vanilla planifolia (the main vanilla of commerce) has not been hybridized for the purpose of agriculture, at least not as far as I have been able to find. Vanilla x tahitensis (Tahitian vanilla) is a hybrid of Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla odorata, but it’s not known how that came about. The origins of Tahitian vanilla are a bit of a mystery, but the cross could have occurred naturally as these species share similar regions.
This doesn’t shed light on the genetics within the species, however. Are there local variants of vanilla in it’s natural range (Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean)? Probably, but I haven’t come across any discussion of this subject. What I do know is that even when a flower self-pollinates (as Vanilla often does) there will be some natural genetic variation. This means that the seedling vines I have here are going to be slightly different from the parent vines. I’ll be watching the vine that I have transplanted for any discernable differences, and report my findings here if anything interesting is noted.
(Some of the background information for this post comes from Vanilla Orchids: Natural History and Cultivation by Ken Cameron)