How to Grow Vanilla Beans in Australia
I can’t believe that my vanilla bean orchid is out in flower again. I mean I shouldn’t be surprised as it is September, and it flowers every September. It’s just that it seems to have come around sooo quickly!
For those not in the know, the Vanilla Bean is produced by the Vanilla Bean orchid.
It is the only edible fruit produced by an orchid anywhere in the world. I have read a lot of blogs that say that it’s difficult to grow, but I have found Vanilla Beans easy to grow in Brisbane.
They are very easy to strike and generally a trouble-free, pest-free plant.
The only work involved is if you want to produce vanilla beans. And why wouldn’t you? They retail for about $400 a kilo, making them the second most expensive spice in the world!
Most of the work arises because the flowers need to be hand pollinated.
In Mexico, where the Vanilla Bean is native there is a little bee, the melipona bee, that pollinates the flower. Everywhere else the flowers have to be hand pollinated.
This isn’t really difficult, but it is onerous as you have a really small window of opportunity to do the pollination. And it takes some practice. The best method I have found uses a matchstick or toothpick to collect the pollen, and insert it into the stamen. I have also read that you should cross pollinate the flowers, ie use pollen from one flower to pollinate another flower. I don’t do this, but still get lots of healthy beans.
Flowers need to be pollinated early morning. The flower opens at 6 am and if I haven’t pollinated it by 9am then forget it, even though the flower will still be open until about 1pm.
I find those flowers pollinated after 9am don’t seem to be successful. Even though I am fairly sure I did the pollination right!
You know you have been successful when the flower stays on the vine and slowly develops into a bean. Un-pollinated flowers drop off the vine within 2 days.
I average around 80-90 beans per year, which is around a 15 percent success.
Those beans that do form then hang on the vine for about 8-9 months (see photo). After this they can be harvested and cured, which is where the real work is!
I have harvested and cured the beans with mixed success. However, as I am mainly producing for my own use, I find it just as easy to leave the beans to ripen on the vine.
The smell of vanilla as I come in my front entrance at the moment is intoxicating! It smells like a lovely vanilla cookie after you’ve been baking or a vanilla scented candle.
Vanilla is actually a spice. I use mine a lot in cooking, both in sweet and savoury foods.
You can also store a whole vanilla bean in a jar of caster sugar and use the vanilla sugar in cakes, puddings, pies and ice-creams. Whole vanilla beans can be bruised and infused in milk or cream for making ice-cream and sweet puddings.
Growing Vanilla Beans
If you want to try to grow your own vanilla beans, you will need a warm sheltered position. I have three vines. Two are growing in diffuse light under a covered pergola (laserlight). And one in about 50 percent sun, climbing an old palm stump.
As I said above, they require little more than a wall, stump or trellis to grow up. However, they are a very vigorous vine once they get established! That cute little vine you get from the nursery will quickly grow into a thick, heavy vine. The leaves are quite fleshy and will easily grow to around 20cm long, and the stem will easily reach 1cm thick a diameter. What this means is that they need sturdy support to grow. They are not going to be happy growing on a metre high coir grow-pole for very long!
Don’t get fussy about the soil. They mostly feed from air roots, and none of mine are still rooted in the pots they started in! In fact the adult plant is epiphytic and won’t produce flowers until it has severed its roots from the soil. This means to feed them you have to give them an occasional foliar feed and spritz with water.
The vanilla grows easily from cuttings, with an almost 100 percent strike rate. It will take a few years before they produce flowers. I’ve read that it takes up to 4 years before flowering, but mine produced at around two and a half years. I watch for when they are happily growing and have lost their connection with soil. Then I know to expect flowers next September.
I haven’t tried growing them in cool or temperate regions, but have read several success stories. If you want to try, I recommend a greenhouse.
Rohanne, Your Edible Garden Guru
I just read your article about vanilla beans.
You said you left some pods ripen on the vine. I have few pods ripening on the vine at the moment but I can’t find any info whether I can use them for cooking /baking as is or I still have to cure them.
Their smell is strong, few split and one of them oozing oily aromatic substance. Thank you for your time and help.
Thank you for your enquiry regarding vanilla beans.
In answer to your question, Yes, you can use the vanilla beans that have ripened on the vine without any further curing. The beans that have ripened on the vine have been cured naturally.
The only difference between vine-cured beans and beans that have been picked and hand-cured is in the amount of vanilla essence in the bean. If you want a really high quality bean, for selling then it is best to pick and cure the beans.
However, for personal use, I find the vine ripened beans just as good. After all that is what used to happen before “man” intervened and wanted to improve on nature!
I have had a few beans split, but none of them have oozed any liquid. I would assume that the liquid that is oozing is just vanilla essence. To be on the safe side I probably would not use this bean, but the others should be fine.
I wipe mine with a damp cloth to remove any dust and contaminants and use them normally in sweets, custards, jams etc. Congratulations on producing some beans. I have had a lot of gardeners tell them how disappointed they are that they have not been successful in producing vanilla beans.