Everyone loves Vanilla Ice-cream and this flavor goes well when served with any of the Indian sweets like Gulab Jamoon, Gajar Halwa, Moong Dal Halwa, Kheer, and so on. It would surprise you to know that the Vanilla essence used in ice-creams and scores of other dishes is an extract from the Orchid plant called Vanilla Planifolia also known as Flat-leaved Vanilla. It belongs to the Orchidaceae family.
Vanilla extract is widely used in food, perfumery and cosmetic industry. Vanilla plant is a native of Mexico and was first cultivated by the Aztec Indians in the 16th century. Travelers and explorers later introduced the plant to tropic and sub tropical parts of the world. Madagascar is the highest producer of Vanilla followed by Indonesia and China.
Vanilla plant is a vine and climbs using the long aerial roots up to 35 meters in height. It needs support to grow. The leaves are alternate and arranged symmetrically opposite the stem. The leaves are thick, dark green, succulent and leathery and can grow to 5 inches long.
Vanilla flowers are clusters of greenish yellow flowers, which are short-lived. The sweet scented flowers are large around 6 ½ inches long. There is a coarse column that is surrounded by the lip. Pollination of the flowers is very rare as the flower closes in the evening, never to reopen. Hand pollination is the method adopted for commercially crop of Vanilla. This manual method of pollination was in introduced in 1847 by a 12 year old laborer called Edmond Albius. The natural form of pollination is done by stingless bees and hummingbirds.
I have visited Vanilla plantations in Coorg and in Udupi district. I saw the manual pollination being done in one of the plantations in Coorg.
The Vanilla fruit is a thin pod around 6” to 10”. The pods ripens turning into black gradually for 8 to 9 months. Each pod contains thousands of miniscule seeds and this is what is used to extract the Vanilla essence.
From 16th to 19th centuries, Vanilla was considered to be an aphrodisiac with therapeutic values. It aids in digestion and preventing headaches to neutralizing poisons and bites
Vanilla can be propagated through stem cutting. Water the plant every two days ensuring proper drainage of water. Vanilla enjoys the high humidity and the plant takes 7 to 8 years to mature. Use a balanced fertilizer like 20-20-20 once in a fortnight. Average growth rate is 3 to 5 feet a year.