Vanilla and food: not plain when it comes to pollination

You decide to bake some cookies. You have your butter stick ready to go, you open your pantry to look for the ingredients. There is flour, oats, sugar, chocolate chips; things look good. You then realize that you’re missing that one ingredient, the one that makes it all come together: vanilla! Luckily, you can quickly buy some fresh vanilla pods or vanilla extract. In a couple hours you are there, enjoying your cookies and the pretty fall landscape.

This is all good, but have you ever thought how that spice – vanilla – gets to your pantry? And who is allowing for that to happen? In today’s blog, the second in our comfort food series (part 1 is here), we will talk about this spice that is so present in our lives that we may not even think about it. Let’s talk about vanilla and how appreciating it is tightly linked to understanding pollination and the key role of pollinators in our food system.

What is vanilla?

What we consume as vanilla is the fruit and the seeds of an orchid, the vanilla plant. This fruit comes in the form of a pod, and the tiny “dust” that comes off it is the hundreds of tiny seeds that this plant produces in each fruit. Vanilla orchids have a vine habit and in the wild are found clinging to trees in the forests of Central and South America. Considering this natural habit, all vanilla cultivation is done vertically, using different types of support.

vanilla plants
Vanilla orchids have a vine habit, and the pollination of their flowers leads to the development of the pods and the tiny seeds we consume. Photos: M. Paredes, M. Manners, Joy.

Although vanilla is now cultivated in several parts of the world, it is accepted that all cultivated varieties/species are Meso- and South American. Indeed, the plant species had been known to be selected and used by Natives of those regions prior to the arrival of Europeans in the New World, but it is only following that arrival that Europeans created a strong demand for the spice. From this respect, if we can today enjoy our yummy cookies and cakes (and more!), recognition is due to the ancient selection done by Aztecs, Totonac, and Mayas in the current Mexican territories.

vanilla vines and pods with a historical description about use
Each plant produces several pods that are harvested and dried before commercialization. Historical descriptions (here, from 1651) indicate that the plant we know today was cultivated by Natives in current Mexico, who called it “Tlilxochitl” or “black flower”. Images: Hernández (1651), Foam.

Today, vanilla is produced mostly in Madagascar, Indonesia, and Mexico, and is the second most valuable spice in the world (after saffron). Its production, however, experienced a bumpy road and still today goes through regular difficulties, which leads to extreme annual fluctuations in vanilla prices. In fact, vanilla plantations occur in regions regularly affected by extreme weather events, such as cyclones, which can destroy a whole year of production. These events lead to large variations in yield from year to year, leading to crazy changes in vanilla prices, going for example from $20/kg in 2010 to the current $350/kg.

How is vanilla produced?

Although vanilla became a European favorite quickly after it was first introduced to the continent, the production of vanilla pods remained elusive for a long time. Indeed, people realized very quickly that without active transfer of pollen to the stigma of the flower, the flowers would not develop into fruits (see how that works), and thus the much-searched-for vanilla beans would not develop at all!

In fact, after much observation of the plants in their natural habitat, people realized that their pollination required especially the visit of a group of bees restricted to the New World, the euglossines, or orchid bees. Restricted to South and Central America, these bees have strong associations with orchids, from which the males are known to collect floral scents they use for courting females (this is super fascinating, and worth a future blog post). Some species of this group of bees are currently suspected to act as pollinators of vanilla flowers in the wild. During their visits, they passively deposit pollen on the stigma of the flower, which leads to the vanilla bean development. Although these bees do pollinate, flower visits by these bees are not common, so even in regions with bee populations, fruiting rates remain relatively low.

bee approaching a vanilla flower
In their natural habitats, vanilla flowers are thought to be pollinated by beautifully metallic euglossine bees. Photo: Gil Wizen,

Adding to this, once vanilla was “discovered” by Europeans, it was introduced into a variety of colonial lands, especially to Indian Ocean islands (e.g., Madagascar, the Comoros, la Réunion) and to French Polynesia. However, and because as I said before, the pollinators of this plant are restricted to the Americas, vanilla production was not successful in those regions. Plants would flower, but the lack of pollinators would lead to virtually no pod production. This changed when a solution was found. Indeed, there had been some early attempts to develop human-based pollination methods, which were as complex as impossible to use. It was finally a slave from the Réunion Islands, Edmond Albius, who developed a simple method to pollinate the flowers by hand, helped with a stick and his own fingers. It was only after this method development that vanilla production could bloom (actually, fruit 😉) to reach its current extent.

hand pollinating a vanilla flower
Edmond Albius was the Réunion slave who revolutionized vanilla production, developing the hand-pollination method still currently used today across the globe. Photos: Antoine Roussin (1863), F. and K. Starr.

Although one may expect the techniques to have changed since the first development of this method, the vast majority of today’s global vanilla production is still hand-pollinated following Albius’ technique! In other words, the production of the second most valuable spice in the world is currently based on pollination done by hand. And this is what I wanted to stress today. We hear a lot about the importance of pollinators, but I feel that the case of vanilla is such a clear example of how important pollinators are to maintaining not just food supplies, but also global economies: take the pollinators away and you lose basically the whole vanilla bean production chain and market. Doesn’t that make you feel especially thankful for pollination and pollinators for that great flavor in your cookies?

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

Orchid Care: Consistency Is Key

Creating an environment that mimics an orchid’s native habitat will ensure plentiful blooms. To thrive, each orchid needs the right spot. Check your orchid’s individual profile. Photo: Rachel Rhodes

My love affair with orchids began in college. It was the winter of 2007 while in Belize for a winter semester class “Tropical Agriculture, Conservation, and Ecosystems.” Sitting along the tranquil headwaters of the Bladen River, our guide detailed the dynamic relationship of the ecosystem that surrounded us.

In the heart of the rainforest, the delicate balance of our environment beats like a drum. As our guide described the four layers of the rainforest from the emergent layer, to the canopy layer, to the understory, and the forest floor, birds chirped and vivid blue morpho butterflies fluttered around. Our guide pointed above us to the most beautiful mesmerizing orchid I had ever seen; the black orchid.

The black orchid gently dangled off the leaning tree beside us, its greenish-yellow petals and sepals had the most beautiful purple blotches near the base. While the “lip” was shaped like the valve of a clamshell, it was deep purple to black and radiated with purple veins. I had never encountered such a fascinating flower.

After the class ended, I dove headfirst into all things orchids to absorb as much information as I could. The orchid family boasts some of the most extraordinary and diverse flowers in the plant kingdom, with around 30,000 species and 120,000 hybrids.

Generally, orchids are divided into two groups; epiphytic and terrestrial. Epiphytic orchids are usually the orchid we most frequently see (Phalaenopis and Cattleya). Epiphytic orchids use their tough roots to anchor themselves to trees. They receive nutrients from rainwater and leaf debris and they absorb moisture from the air. Terrestrial orchids grow with their roots in the ground. They are most commonly found in grasslands or boggy areas. Understanding the type of orchid you have, their growing conditions, light requirements and flowering season is integral in ensuring your success.

Glazed pottery and ceramic orchid pots come in varying hues, shapes, and sizes. Decorative pots are fun but make sure to keep an orchid in its original plastic container and place it inside the decorative pot. If you take it out of its plastic container, too much air will get to the roots and the orchid will dry out faster. Photo: Rachel Rhodes

After much trial and error, I have learned a few things. With orchids, consistency is key. A majority of our orchids such as Phalaenopsis only bloom once a year in late winter through early spring (January to March). Getting them to rebloom is the ultimate prize as a gardener. The best way to encourage flowering is make sure that you have the proper lightening, ample water, and the right amount of food.

First, getting the light right is one of the most important factors. Phalaenopsis and Paphiopedilum like morning light from an east-facing window. This provides an orchid with a few hours of direct sunlight without hurting the plant. The sun can be very damaging to the leaves of an orchid, so the right placement is key. If you do not have an east-facing window, you can make other spots work by following these principals. North facing windows simply do not provide enough light to sustain the healthy growth of an orchid. If this is your only option, you will need a grow light to give your orchid the boost of light it needs. If your orchid is in a west-facing window put up a sheer curtain to protect it from the heat of the summer sun. Furthermore, if using a south facing window a sheer curtain is advisable year round. Unlike Phalaenopsis and Paphiopedilum, Cattleya like bright light from a south or west facing window.

applying water to orchid roots
Water your orchid once a week. Make sure that you take it out of its decorative pot, leaving it in its plastic container. Run water over the roots for a few minutes avoiding the leaves. Allow the plant to air out for a while before putting it back into its decorative container. Photo: Rachel Rhodes

Just as getting the right lighting is crucial so is watering. When watering your orchids, always water in the morning. This guarantees that the moisture has time to evaporate. If you water at night, it allows water to settle in the nooks of the bark, which promotes fungal growth. Avoid watering or misting the leaves. Misting tricks the guard cells on the leaves to think that the humidity is higher than it actually is. This can cause your orchid to dry out faster. Additionally it can lead to crown rot if water settles in the nooks of the leaves. Orchids love humidity. To increase humidity you can use a humidifier set at 40-50% or use a humidity tray.

mealybugs on orchid buds
Mealybugs are a common orchid pest, especially on moth orchids (Phalaenopsis).They are little white fluffy insects that are closely related to scale insects. They love new growth and flowers. Unlike scales, mealybugs wander in search of feeding places. They damage the overall vigor of the plant, weakening it and causing the loss of leaves, buds, and flowers. Photo: Rachel Rhodes

All plants require nutrients to grow and thrive. Epiphytic orchids like Phalaenopsis live in trees where they receive nutrients from rainwater and leaf debris. Pot-grown orchids depend on feedings to produce healthy leaves and beautiful blooms. With proper feedings, a well-fertilized orchid will keep their leaves longer and will produce more flowers. When feeding, it’s best to use orchid-specific fertilizers. Orchids also thrive from “weakly weekly” feedings when blooming by diluting fertilizer to ¼ strength rather than a full dose once a month.

By Rachel J. Rhodes, Master Gardener Coordinator, Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, University of Maryland Extension. Follow the Queen Anne’s County Master Gardeners on Facebook. Visit the UME Master Gardener webpage to find Master Gardener events and services in your county/city. 

Q&A: What causes orchid leaves to turn yellow and shrivel?

orchid with yellowing leaves

Q: Why are my orchid leaves turning yellow and drying up? The plants are located in the bathtub where they get sun daily from the south and west window.

A: While it is normal for the oldest leaves of moth orchids (Phalaenopsis) to turn yellow and dry up as they age, when there is uniform yellowing and shriveling of newer leaves, it is a sign of distress. The shriveling suggests there is a lack of water reaching the leaves. Check the root system of your plant. If the roots are in poor condition, they cannot take up water. Overwatering can cause roots to rot. If you haven’t repotted your orchid in a couple years, the potting medium may have broken down and become too dense to allow for good drainage. Bacterial rot also can occur if water is allowed to sit around the center shoot or in the leaf sheaths for a long period of time. Water only in the morning so that your plants can dry out by nightfall. Never let them stand in water and keep the plants in a location where they can get good air circulation, indirect light, and a warm daytime temperature above 75F. Watering instructions can be found in our orchid care video.

See additional information on Phalaenopsis orchid care on the Home & Garden Information Center website.

By Christa K. Carignan, Maryland Certified Professional Horticulturist, Coordinator, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center