In this guide we will show you how to grow vanilla beans. Today, there are over 150 different kinds of vanilla. It is the most popularly used spice in the world and 2nd most expensive, second only to saffron.
The plant kingdom’s Orchid family is the second largest family of flowering plants. About 28,000 different species of flowering plants have been identified to date, classified into 880 genera, one of which is the genus Vanilla. Of the 100 or so species that comprise the Vanilla genus, only one original plant – that only grows in one part of one country, where it’s flowers that bloom for only a few hours once per year are pollinated by only one species of bee that lives only in that region of that one country – is responsible for the vanilla we know and love today. That plant is Vanilla planifolia, and it is the unwitting tip of the spear that is the nearly 800 million dollar global vanilla market.
Vanilla beans at the end of the process, ready for consumption.
The work you are about to put into growing vanilla beans requires an understanding of where it came from and what we’ve done with it.
Vanilla’s un-vanilla past and present
Vanilla planifolia occurs naturally in only one small part of one country in the world: the region of modern-day Veracruz, Mexico.
The Totonac people, indigenous to the central-east coast of Mexico, discovered and used vanilla for hundreds of years before anyone else even knew it existed. It grew not only in their country alone, but also only in that small region. Around the mid 1400s, the Totonac people were conquered by the Aztecs who forced them to provide regular offerings and tributes, much of which came in the form of the Tlilxochitl vine, or what we know today as vanilla. About 100 years later, Aztec ruler Montezuma got a taste of his own medicine (literally) when he was in turn conquered by Cortes and his Spanish conquistadors. Cortes took the spice back to Europe where it was enjoyed largely by the wealthy aristocracy in their beverages. In the early 1600s, an apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I isolated the flavor for use on its own, giving birth to the way we continue to use it today.
However, production was an issue. Shortly before the 1800s, the vine was smuggled from Mexico to the tiny Bourbon island of Reunion, off the east coast of Madagascar (itself an island of the east coast of Africa). They were able to successfully grow the vine without issue, but it rarely produced vanilla beans, as Mexico’s indigeneous Melipona bee wasn’t around to facilitate pollination. This went on for about 30 years before a Belgian botanist made the connection and it was realized that lack of pollination was the issue.
Five years after this discovery, a 12 year old boy born into slavery and sent to Reunion by his master to work on the plantation of a French botanist discovered how to quickly – and incredibly profitably – hand pollinate the individual flowers. And the rest, as they say, is history: the method started by this 12 year old boy is the same method still used today. This boy’s name was Edmund Albius, and his invaluable discovery revolutionized an industry that is projected to be worth almost 800 million dollars in just four short years, yet occurs in countries otherwise besieged by poverty.
Edmund Albius was 12 years old when he discovered how to hand-pollinate Vanilla planifolia. He single-handedly revolutionized the vanilla industry and his method remains widely used today.
Fast forward 200 years, and almost all vanilla produced commercially is a product of hand-pollination. And somehow, less than 1% of the global vanilla market is sourced from actual vanilla beans. Less expensive methods of isolating vanillin have been discovered and are now prevalent, in spite of the fact that production of the derivative is harmful to a planet already subjected to countless acts of wanton recklessness by the food and agriculture industries. Author and environmentalist Simran Sethi speaks to this in her 2017 Smithsonian article entitled “The Bittersweet Story of Vanilla.”
How to grow vanilla beans from cuttings: the easiest way
Growing – or attempting to grow – vanilla orchids is no easy undertaking.There are certain steps you can take along the way to make an incredibly difficult, time-consuming, and high-maintenance process a bit easier on yourself. One of those steps comes right at the beginning, with your choice of how to start your vanilla orchid. The easiest way to start, especially if you’re new to gardening or new to vanilla orchids, is to start with cuttings from a mother plant.
Locate a mother plant
When starting from cuttings, cut or obtain a section with at least two leaves/nodes. The cutting shown has four nodes.
Growing vanilla beans starts with locating a mother plant that has been growing for at least two years. When you make your cutting, start from where the growing limbs connect to the mother plant’s leader branch, and cut a section with at least two full nodes, or leaves, or more.
Prepare your potting mix and starter pots
Plug trays or starter trays are a good way to start growing vanilla beans. Four inch pots work well, too.
Once you have your cuttings, you will need to prepare a special potting mix to grow vanilla beans. Vanilla orchid cuttings respond well to sphagnum and potting soil mixed together. This response likely has to do with their terrestrial nature, meaning they can grow in dirt or potting soil, unlike other species of orchids which are not terrestrial and cannot grow in such a medium. A germinating mix that promotes root growth is also advisable, and can be mixed right into the sphagnum and potting soil blend.
Planting your cuttings
Next, you will use either plug trays or 4” pots if plug trays are not available or desired. Take your blend of sphagnum, potting mix, and germinating mix and fill the plug trays or the 4” pots to the top. Do not pack the material as there needs to be room to place a tight coil of stem. With the leaves of the cuttings facing upwards, place the cuttings into the growing medium. You will want to take the lowest “stem” of your cutting and coil it around into the growing medium, making sure it is tightly bound and held in place within the medium. This will help promote root growth, and actually encourages the roots to grow faster. If you are using a plug tray, continue in this manner with one cutting per plug.
If you are using 4” pots, you can put three to five cuttings per pot. As with the plug trays, it is of paramount importance to secure the bottom stem firmly into the growing medium, ensuring there is no wiggle room and no change of uprooting. The cuttings must be tightly held in place.
Many growers at this point will notate on the plug tray or pot the date the cuttings were planted so they can track how much time passes before the new growths begin to appear.
Sphagnum moss (shown) mixed with potting soil is a perfect medium for growing vanilla orchid plants.
How to grow vanilla bean cuttings
Place your plug tray or 4” pots in a spot that receives indirect sunlight, where they will be left for at least a couple months. Provide water two to three times per week.
After about two months, you should be able to easily see the new growths popping out around the cuttings. You can remove one of the plants or plugs from the planting receptacle to inspect the roots, and should be able to see nice, new, healthy roots. Those new healthy roots indicate that the cutting is viable and will grow into a nice, healthy orchid. From this point, give the starter cuttings another month in the same location of indirect sunlight, and continue to provide water two to three times per week.
After another month – or about three months total – you should see new growths popping up around every single cutting. If not, you can continue to allow more time because this process can take up to four or five months depending on the growing conditions. Even indoors, if the cuttings were kept in a room where it was warm and humid, they will root and grow faster because those are ideal growing conditions. If the air is too dry and cold, the new growths will take much longer to appear.
Upsizing pots and transplanting
Vanilla orchids are sprawling vines that love to climb, so they need upright supports that allow them to do this. On vanilla plantations, they are typically given trees to climb, as they do in nature.
The growing vanilla beans need to now be removed from the 4” pots or the plug trays and inspected for healthy root development. If you can see new, healthy roots developing, the entire root ball and cutting can be transferred to its own pot. Do this with every viable cutting, until all original cuttings are separated and planted into their own individual pots. You can use the same sphagnum and potting soil mix as before, but with a couple of slight modifications. First, start with plain moss at the bottom of the pot. This will help retain moisture. After that, add a small handful of straight potting mix. At this time, take a handful of the sphagnum and potting soil blend and rightly press it and the root of the orchid plant into the pot together. As gardeners, you’ve undoubtedly learned to instinctively watch for and correct root-binding of your plants. In this case, you want to go the other direction and bind those roots in there nice and tight.
The key to grow vanilla beans successfully: root-binding
Root binding is something gardeners typically work to avoid, but when you grow vanilla beans, it should be allowed as the plants prefer it. However, it is a delicate balance as you want to maintain just the right amount before upsizing pots.
Just as before, remember to keep the bottom stems tightly bound and held in place in each individual pot, with no wiggle room or change of uprooting. Two inch pots are ideal for cuttings that were started in plug trays. If you used 4” pots for starting, separate your cuttings and repot individually in two inch pots if you have them, or one per four inch pot if not.
Adding support to growing vanilla beans
As the plants grow bigger, you can transplant them into four inch pots. It’s important to keep them in small pots as they grow to encourage root binding, but at the same time they do need to be moved up to larger pots when the time is right so those roots can continue to grow. As always, with every step up to a larger pot, the roots must always be very tightly packed with no wiggle room or chance for uprooting.
Vanilla planifolia are vining orchids, and as such, they are at their best with something to climb and do so quite quickly. Throughout this upsizing process, climbing supports need to be included. A narrow 12” dowel driven through the pot vertically at the time of their first transplant is a typical starter support, with incremental graduations to supports that are sturdier and wider. Small trellises are available especially for potted plants, and small tomato cages work great.
As the plants get bigger and heavier, you can use ties to affix portions of their leader branch to the support to keep them upright and encourage continued upright growth. In nature, these sprawlers reach great lengths that cover the trunks of entire trees. You should also be able to see tendrils of the orchid plant curling itself around the support.
Dual-root watering of growing vanilla beans
Vanilla planifolia plants prefer high humidity, as it is what they receive in their natural growing habitat. Providing a humidifier, overhead misting system, or hand spraying with a water bottle is necessary in arid growing conditions.
“Début du Biodôme de Montréal; habitat des aras hyacinthe dans la Forêt tropicale humide. – . – VM168-Y-3_28-009. – Archives de la Ville de Montréal.” by Archives de la Ville de Montréal is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
While Vanilla planifolia are terrestrial orchids, they are also semi-epiphytic, meaning, in addition to their ground roots, they also have air roots, and both take in nutrients and moisture. This is why vanilla orchids respond so well to humid conditions and require less water than one might think an orchid would need, because their air roots are able to take in all that moisture from the air.
If you can recreate these humid conditions, the better your plant will do. If your growing environment is very arid, you will need to not only provide water at the ground roots but also to the air roots as well. Wrap their trellises or climbing supports with sphagnum or other moss and then mist the added material with a water bottle. The air roots will take in the moisture retained by the moss on the trellis.
Adding moss to the growing support is not required, but will help. At the very least, if nothing else, use a water bottle to spritz the length of the vine as it grows.
Trim growing vanilla beans as needed
Vanilla orchids aren’t bothered by trimming at all. If your plants start getting too tall for the space you have for them, just trim them back off the top to maintain them as needed. If you’re able to trim sections at least two or more leaves/nodes in length, you can start new plants or give them away as gifts for others to do the same.
Maintain growing conditions until flowering occurs
The greenish-white flowers of the vanilla bean plant do not appear until they are at least two to three years old, sometimes older.
As they grow, remember to maintain the conditions of indirect sunlight and moist roots. Ideally the room or area where you are growing them is warm and humid. A humidifier can be used to create humidity where otherwise there would be none. Check the root balls regularly to ensure they are moist but not overly wet. Continuing a watering schedule of two to three times per week should be adequate, as long as the air roots are taking in moisture as well.
Allow the plants to continue to grow in this manner until flowering occurs.
How to hand pollinate growing vanilla beans
The species’ only natural pollinator can only be found in Mexico, so the successful growing of vanilla in all other locations is fully dependent on the process of hand pollination.
As soon as your plant has blooms peel the petals back to expose to the center column, which is where the male and female parts are, albeit separated by a membrane. You must move the membrane out of the way by hand so the male and female parts can come in contact with each other.
Check every morning for new blooms
Vanilla orchid flowers grow in groups, and they bloom sequentially. This means one day might see some blooms, then more the next day, and more the next day, and so on and so forth. These flowers also only bloom one day per year, and not even for the entire day. They will typically open in the morning and then close by early afternoon, and that is your entire opportunity to pollinate that flower for the entire year. Most gardeners that engage in growing vanilla and hand pollination check their plants every single morning for blooms, and aim to complete the pollination process within the first couple hours of the day.
Exposing the female and male parts
Within each flower, you will see a center column. The petals of the bloom need to be peeled away to expose this center column. At the very top of this column is a flap that covers the female part of the flower. The male part of the flower is folded down over the flap, and this male part is where the pollen is.
Flipping the switch
You’re going to take a single toothpick and lightly run it up underneath the flap, allowing the flap to continue laying down. But as you run the toothpick up on the backside of the flap, you’ll see a light switch effect happening underneath it. The male part will be in the downward, “light off” position. The action of the toothpick will lift it upward to a “light on” position. When you see you have moved the male part from down to up, or “off” to “on”, keep the flap held down over the top with light thumb pressure and slowly slide the toothpick out horizontally. Continue to apply light pressure from your thumb, ensuring that the pollen from the male part is getting contact with the female part.
Caution: watch for loose pollen
That is the entirety of the process, and as long as it is done with a delicate touch, it should be successful. There is, however, something worth noting – the pollen is attached to the male part very, very loosely. It could easily become dislodged and fall away, giving you substantially less pollen to work with. More often than not, this happens when the toothpick is moved in the wrong direction.
This video shows how to hand-pollinate vanilla bean flowers.
Check for pollinated vs. unpollinated blooms
After the hand-pollination process is complete, you will need to wait about two or three weeks to see if the process was successful. You will be able to clearly see with the naked eye the difference between the flowers that were successfully pollinated vs. the ones that were not. Those that were will be green, fat, and fleshy; they will already be beginning to take on the shape of a seed pod. Any flowers that were not pollinated will appear as hollowed-out tubes that will yellow out and eventually fall off the plant.
The more closely you watch your vanilla orchid for blooms, and the more effort you invest into carefully pollinating as many blooms as you can, the higher your success rate will be, and the bigger the yield of grown vanilla beans come harvest time.
How to harvest growing vanilla beans
After pollination occurs, it takes approximately nine months for growing vanilla beans to ripen and be ready for harvest. Growing vanilla beans are not a crop that can be harvested in one go. Each individual pod ripens at its own rate, even in the exact same conditions as all other pods, and therefore it is a process that requires daily checking and harvesting as needed.
The color of these beans indicates that they were ready for their recent harvest. “starr-200721-7829-Vanilla_planifolia-harvested_pods-Hawea_Pl_Olinda-Maui” by Starr Environmental is marked with CC BY 2.0.
It’s critically important to note that, while growing vanilla beans may appear ready after five or six months, they should not be picked. There’s a ripening process that is occurring inside, and these last few months on the vine are a very necessary part of the development of the complex flavor profile that is vanilla. Resist the urge to harvest early, and allow the pods the time they need.
Somewhere around the nine month mark, look for growing vanilla beans with tips that are pale green, yellowish-green, or pale yellow in color. Growing vanilla beans that are yellowing at the tips have a higher glucovanillin concentration than their bright green counterparts. Pods that are allowed to brown on the vine have a glucovanillin concentration even higher still, but brown pods are prone to splitting during harvest, which affects their market value. For private use in a home garden, this isn’t as much of an issue and becomes a matter of trial and error and personal preference. Note that you can lose the vanilla from inside the pod if it splits, which is why even home gardeners opt to harvest before they start to turn brown, which will occur later anyway during the curing process.
When you notice the tips changing colors, simply cut the growing vanilla beans from the plant using clean scissors or pruning shears. Though they may be growing in bunches, they should be inspected and harvested as individuals, and not in bunches.
How to cure grown vanilla beans
The curing process begins with two key treatments of the harvested pods: freezing and sweating.
The laborious process of curing vanilla beans is four-fold: freezing (or blanching), sweating, drying, and conditioning. All are crucial to achieve the desired flavor profile.
Grown vanilla beans start to ferment the second they are harvested from the vine. To stop this,vanilla beans should be frozen to kill off further fermentation and ripening. Freezing works well for home gardeners because it is better suited to the smaller quantities most home gardeners are dealing with. Another popular method is blanching, though that soon begins to feel far more labor intensive because of the necessity to perform the function nearly everyday, if not everyday.
As vanilla beans are harvested, place them in a freezer in a sealed freezer bag. Continue accumulating vanilla beans in this manner until you have about one pound of harvested beans, which is an ideal weight to continue to the next stage..
Sweating the vanilla beans facilitates an enzymatic breakdown of the glucovanillins, separating them into glucose and vanillin, both of which are needed for flavoring.
When the last of your harvested vanilla beans have been frozen for at least 24 hours, you can begin the sweating, which is a detail-oriented, painstaking process that requires diligent timing.
- Build a makeshift sweatbox by filling (2) one-gallon jugs with hot tap water and placing them into a box or insulated cooler. The box or cooler needs to be deep and wide enough to accommodate the jugs and then a fitted lid.
- Take your vanilla beans (which you have thawed out in a hot water bath just long enough to get warm, only a minute or two) and place them into a freezer bag, which is then placed on a towel situated between the two water jugs inside the sweatbox. The towel ensures the vanilla beans will not be sitting in standing water or condensate. Affix the lid to the sweatbox.
- Leave the vanilla beans for at least 48 hours. Check the internal temperature and keep as close to 115 degrees as possible. Lower is OK, but at or lower than 90 degrees means the water jugs need to be refilled with hot water.
- Look for the vanilla beans to appear sticky and wet inside their bag. This is how they appear when they are “sweating.”
- After the first 48 hours, run the vanilla beans through a food dehydrator at 115 degrees for one hour. Ensure they are spread out evenly and carefully on the tray.
- After one hour in the dehydrator, put the vanilla beans back in their same freezer bag and place them back into the sweatbox with newly filled water jugs, this time for 24 hours.
- You will continue to sweat the vanilla beans in this manner for 24 hour increments, with a one hour run through the dehydrator between every 24-hour sweatbox period.
- Continue for 18 days. During this time, the vanilla beans will brown out, wrinkle, and toward the end will begin to smell familiar.
After 18 days of sweating, the vanilla beans need to be slowly dried for three weeks, though the process can take up to two months. The slower they dry, the better they will be. They need to dry in a space that is clean, dry, quiet, and that gets plenty of air circulation. A popular at-home method for this part of the process is to use food dehydrator shelves placed on a rack or wall for safe keeping.
During this process, the moisture level of the vanilla beans needs to be checked often and carefully. They cannot be allowed to dry out too fast. There are a few ways to check for the desired dryness:
One way to check for dryness is to inspect the ratio of wrinkles to smooth skin. You’re looking for heavy wrinkles with very little smooth skin in between.
- Inspect the wrinkles that have already shown up, and note the smooth space in between the wrinkles. As they dry out, that smooth space will decrease so that the skin is virtually all wrinkles with very little visible smooth space in between.
- Watch the color change. During this time the vanilla beans will go from medium brown to a very dark, almost-black brown. If they remain lighter brown in color, they are of inferior quality and should not be used.
- You can also use your fingers and sense of touch to gauge dryness. The vanilla beans should be just supple enough to loop around your finger without breaking or draining too much liquid.
- vanilla beans that have achieved the desired level of dryness should be placed in a sealed bag. When the last bean is added to the bag, note the date.
Almost there: conditioning
The final step of the curing process is referred to as conditioning, and it goes for three months from the date of the completed drying process. Though more time consuming, this is an easy part of the process as the vanilla beans are left alone during this time. Simply place out of the way where they will not be disturbed.
After this three month conditioning time, the vanilla beans are ready for consumption or storage prior to consumption. Whole vanilla beans sealed in glass jars will keep indefinitely. If any vanilla beans are going to be used to make extract, use the vanilla beans that are drier and/or have split.
Rewards of growing vanilla
There are more rewards to growing vanilla beans than meet the eye.
If you’ve made it this far, put in the time, and done the work, you should have some bonafide home-grown whole vanilla beans as a reward for your efforts. And as rewarding as that is, there’s also something to be said for the knowledge that you’re participating in something bigger…something better. Things like clean, sustainable food cultivation that helps the earth, and doesn’t harm it; and like relying on your own efforts instead of those of the citizens of impoverished countries making millionaires out of people who’ve never planted or grown anything. You may be growing vanilla, but the long term results of more people following your lead are anything but.