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 Vanilla subsp. var.  Vanilla
Flat-leaved Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia)
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Orchidaceae > Vanilla var. ,

Vanilla, the vanilla orchids, form a flowering plant genus of about 110 species in the orchid family (Orchidaceae). The most widely known member is the Flat-leaved Vanilla (V. planifolia), from which commercial vanilla flavoring is derived. It is the only orchid widely used for industrial purposes (in the food industry and in the cosmetic industry). Another species often grown commercially but not on an industrial scale is the Pompona Vanilla (V. pompona).

This evergreen genus occurs worldwide in tropical and subtropical regions, from tropical America to tropical Asia, New Guinea and West Africa. It was known to the Aztecs for its flavoring qualities. The genus was established in 1754 by Plumier, based on J. Miller. The name came from the Spanish word "vainilla", diminutive form of "vaina" (meaning "sheath"), which is in turn derived from Latin "vagina".

Flat-leaved Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) habitus

This genus of vine-like plants has a monopodial climbing habitus. They can form long thin stems with a length of more than 35 m, with alternate leaves spread along their length. The short, oblong, dark green leaves of Vanilla are thick and leathery, even fleshy in some species. But there are also a significant number of species that have their leaves reduced to scales or have become nearly or totally leafless and appear to use their green climbing stems for photosynthesis. Long and strong aerial roots grow from each node.

The racemose inflorescences short-lived flowers arise successively on short peduncles from the leaf axils or scales. There may be up to 100 flowers on a single raceme, but usually no more than 20. The flowers are quite large and attractive with white, green, greenish yellow or cream colors. The flowers' sepals and petals are similar. The lip is tubular-shaped and surrounds the long, bristly column, opening up, as the bell of a trumpet, at its apex. The anther is at the top of the column and hangs over the stigma, separated by the rostellum. Most Vanilla flowers have a sweet scent.

Blooming occurs only when the flowers are fully grown. Each flower opens up in the morning and closes late in the afternoon on the same day, never to re-open. If pollination has not occurred meanwhile, it will be shed. The flowers are self-fertile but need pollinators to perform this task. The flowers are presumed to be pollinated by stingless bees (e.g. Melipona) and certain hummingbirds, which visit the flowers primarily for nectar. But hand pollination is the most reliable method in commercially grown Vanilla.

The fruit is termed "vanilla bean", though true beans are fabaceaen eudicots not at all closely related to orchids. Rather, the vanilla fruit is technically an elongate, fleshy and later dehiscent capsule 10-20 cm long. It ripens gradually for 8 to 9 months after flowering, eventually turning black in color and giving off a strong aroma. Each pod contains thousands of minute seeds, but it is the pod that is used to create vanilla flavoring.

Vanilla species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species, such as the wooly bear moths Hypercompe eridanus and H. icasia. Vanilla plantations require some sort of tree planting for the orchids to climb up on; off-season or when abandoned, they may serve as habitat for animals of open forest, e.g. on the Comoros for Robert Mertens' Day Gecko (Phelsuma robertmertensi).

Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture

Vanilla (Spanish, little sheath or pod). Orchidaceae. Vanilla. Climbing orchids whose branched stems ascend to a height of many feet, ornamental but known mostly as the source of vanilla used for flavoring and which is produced from the seed-pods.

Nodes bearing lvs. or scales and aerial roots in alternate arrangement: fls. in axillary racemes or spikes, without an involucre at the top of the ovary; sepals and petals similar, spreading; labellum united with the column, the limb enveloping the upper portion of the latter; column not winged. — About 20 species in the tropics. The genus was monographed in 1896 by R. A. Rolfe in Journ. Linn. Soc., vol. 32.

The most important species is V. planifolia, the vanilla of commerce. It is a native of Mexico, but is now widely cultivated in the West Indies, Java, Bourbon, Mauritius, and other islands of the tropics, its chief requirement being a hot damp climate. The plants are propagated by cuttings varying in length from 2 to about 12 feet, the longer ones being the more satisfactory. These are either planted in the ground or merely tied to a tree so that they are not in direct connection with the earth. They soon send out aerial roots, by which connection with the soil is established. They are usually trained on trees so that the stems are supported by the forked branches, but posts and trellises are also used as supports. In most places where vanilla-culture is practised, pollinating insects are lacking and the flowers must be pollinated by hand. Plants bear their first fruit about three years after setting. They then continue to fruit for thirty or forty years, bearing up to fifty pods annually. The vanilla pods are picked before they are ripe, and dried. The vanillin crystallizes on the outside. For a full description of vanilla culture and methods of curing the pods, see Bulletin No. 21, United States Department of Agriculture, Division of Botany, by S. J. Galbraith. Vanillin is also made from other sources by chemical means.

V. Eggersii. Rolfe. Sts. thick: lvs. abortive, oblong-lanceolate: sepals and petals greenish; lip white or lilac. W. Indies.—V. grandifolia, Lindl. Lvs. 7 in. long, 5 in. broad, narrowed at base into more or less elongated petiole: fls. very large. W. Trop. Afr.— V. Humblotii, Reichb. f. Fls. bright yellow, about 5 in. across, with brown markings on lip and rosy hairs in throat. Madagascar. B.M. 7996.— V. Lujae, Walden. Lvs. resembling V. planifolia: fls. very large. Congo.

The above text is from the Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture. It may be out of date, but still contains valuable and interesting information which can be incorporated into the remainder of the article. Click on "Collapse" in the header to hide this text.



Pests and diseases


The taxonomy of the genus Vanilla is unclear.[1] This is a partial list of species or synonyms:


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  • Portéres, R. Le Vanillier et la Vanille dans le monde in Bouriquet, G. Encyclopédie Biologique. Vol. 46. Paul Lechavelier, Paris, 1954.
  • Rolfe, R.A. A revision of the genus Vanilla. Kew Bull. 439-478, 1895.

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