Vanilla Seedlings

vanilla seedling
a nat­ur­al vanil­la seedling

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.

vanilla seedling planted
the seedling trans­plant­ed into the nurs­ery

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 Genetics

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)

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