Vanilla is the second most valuable spice crop per kilogram in the world (after saffron), but it is a very long-term crop, and demands excellent growing skills.
I first saw it growing in 1999 in Tonga on the island of Vava’u, in an area owned by the King. It was not well maintained, and processing – an essential part of the production system – was fairly haphazard. A key part of production involves hand pollination of the individual flowers on a daily basis, and then, when the crop is maturing, the selective harvesting of the fruit (called beans, because they look like bean pods), also on a daily basis. From flowering to harvest normally takes six to nine months. It is not a crop for the faint-hearted.
Vanilla originated in Central America, where pollination is carried out by a specific local bee, but as these bees are not present in many other countries, hand pollination is necessary.
There appears to be a real shortage of critical information of the physiology of the vanilla orchid, so most producers simply let the climate and the weather dictate production patterns.
It would be interesting to know what determines the flowering pattern of the plant. Most tropical plants flower when rain follows a period of drought. Could flowering be controlled with such a strategy?
Each flower shoot has several flowers on it, rather like a tomato, and it is normal to only allow three or four flowers to set on each shoot, otherwise the individual bean size is smaller. Curing is also quite complicated to produce a high quality (and therefore high priced) product. It involves initially the “killing” of the mature beans by immersing them in hot water, and then the development of the vanilla flavour by storing the beans for several months at high humidity and high temperature. Then the pods are dried and graded for sale.
A New Zealand company, Heilala Vanilla, based in Tauranga, has a vanilla production operation on the Tongan Island of Vava’u. They originally started to grow it in Tauranga in greenhouses, but found the heating costs too high in New Zealand. I wonder how the economics would look these days using a plant factory and LEDs (lightemitting diodes). Certainly high light levels are not a requirement for vanilla, and in fact plant factories use energy to dissipate heat from the lamps rather than for heating. However, the ability to precisely control the environment might be a huge plus. How productive might the vanilla orchid be if exposed to long days (up to 24 hours), and optimum temperatures, rather than what the climate provides? It was interesting to note that the Cook Island government is promoting vanilla production as a potential export crop. Certainly it has the advantage of being an excellent crop for a country where freight costs to market are an important consideration, being high value and low volume. The French research organisation CIRAD (the Agricultural Research Centre for International Development) on the island of Reunion in the Southern Indian Ocean is the centre for world authorities on vanilla orchid production.
▴ Vanilla flower at the right stage for pollination.
▴ Vanilla beans.
▴ Young vanilla flower stalk.