Delicious, Delicious Orchids

You might laugh if asked if you eat orchids. So you’d probably be astonished to learn that you might be eating orchids everyday, possibly hundreds or even thousands of them. There could be orchids in your kitchen right now, and you might eat them at every meal. That’s because natural vanilla extract comes from the Vanilla orchid. Those little black specks in vanilla ice cream are orchid seeds, and part of the fascinating story of an unusual orchid.

The vast majority of orchids are not edible, but a few kinds are. Vanilla is, by far, the most valuable orchid food product. It’s also the only orchid that grows as a vine. There are dozens of different Vanilla species from tropical areas of the world, but the one that is usually grown commercially is called Vanilla planifolia. This plant is native to southern Florida, Mexico, the West Indies, Central America, and parts of South America. Originally cultivated by native peoples in Mexico, it’s now grown in many tropical areas around the world as a crop. The ancient Aztecs used it to spice up their chocolate drinks, and now it’s used in everything from ice cream to baked goods, and even for perfumes and tobacco flavoring.

Vanilla vine in Costa RicaVanilla flower and budsVanilla flower

While the flowers may look like Cattleyas, Vanillas are more closely related to Epidendrums. The flowers stay open less than a day, and are pollinated by hand when in cultivation. After pollination, seedpods start to form, taking as long as 9 months to mature on the vine. To develop their rich flavor, the seedpods are picked, dried, and cured, in a complex process that takes several months more. The difficulties of cultivation and curing make vanilla the second most expensive spice, after saffron. Madagascar and Indonesia are the world’s largest vanilla producers.

Vanilla vine in HawaiiVanilla vine growing up a tree in HawaiiVanilla vine growing up a tree in Hawaii

Healthy Vanilla vines are heavy and can stretch over 100 feet (30 m.) These tropical vines require warm temperatures and regular watering, so they’re not easy to grow at home. Commonly called vanilla beans, the dried and cured seed capsules are slender and brown. If you’ve ever used one in the kitchen, you know that when you cut it open, there are thousands of small black specks, which are the seeds. You can enjoy their delicious flavor and scent, but since they’ve been dried and cured, the seeds won’t grow. Synthetic substitutes for the flavor have been used for decades. In the USA, bottles labeled as “vanilla extract” are authentic orchid products, and bottles labeled as “vanilla flavoring” are artificial.

Variegated Vanilla vineVariegated Vanilla vine close-up

Vanilla vine in Costa RicaVanilla beans are dried and cured Vanilla seedpods

Whether you’re an orchid lover or a chef, there are plenty of reasons to love vanilla. I bet you’ll never look at a bowl of vanilla ice cream in the same way again.

Explore posts in the same categories: Fragrant Orchids, Photos, Warm Growers, Watering

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7 Comments on “Delicious, Delicious Orchids”

  1. Dana Says:

    Fascinating article! Since it grows more than 100′, I suppose that kind of rules it out as a houseplant, unless you’ve got a big house! It is really interesting to think of orchids as food, especially such a common food as vanilla.

  2. nancy Says:

    i always tell my friends that vanilla comes from orchids and they never believe me! now i have proof. i didn’t know they came from florida (and nearby) i always thought they just came from madagascar since that’s where the beans come from.

  3. Robin Ng Says:

    Wow! I eat orchids all the time but I had no idea. Thanks for the great post.

  4. tony Says:

    those are great pictures of the vanilla vine growing up the side of the tree. it sure doesn’t look like any other orchid i’ve seen.

  5. Joy Blake Says:

    Thanks for the pics. I’ve never seen a photo of the actual vanilla flower before.

  6. Dennis Says:

    Great article!

  7. AboutOrchids » Blog Archive » Compost Happens Says:

    […] My Cymbidiums, Sobralia, and Vanilla quickly start growing new leaves. […]