How to grow vanilla beans at home


Orchids are one of the largest families of flowering plants, and vanilla is the only orchid plant that produces an edible fruit.1 In 2005, a provisional checklist of the size of the orchid family suggested there are more than 24,500 known species.2

According to the American Orchid Society3 there are over 50 species of the orchid Vanilla planifolia. The vanilla orchid is in a group of the most primitive orchids. Although the flowers are short-lived, they’re often produced in succession so the plant may be in bloom for several weeks.

Other than plants used in the cut flower trade, not many orchids are propagated for commercial use, save the vanilla orchid.4 As well as having great commercial value, the vanilla plant may also prove to be foundational to an understanding of the evolution of orchid plants.

Since the seeds have a hard coating, it is thought that animals help with dispersing their seeds. There have been reports the seeds are eaten by bats, also important in scattering seeds in the environment.5

The vanilla orchid is found near the Equator, especially in Brazil, the West Indies and southern Africa.6 While the plant does best in the tropics, there are ways to grow vanilla beans in your own home and enjoy the rich flavor and health benefits.

History of vanilla and how it can be used

Vanilla thrives when it is grown close to the equator, in the most humid regions.7 The first people to cultivate the plant were the Totonacs of Mexico’s east coast. When the Aztecs conquered the Totonacs living in east central Mexico8 in the 15th century, they began using vanilla.9

When the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs, the vanilla plant made its way to Europe.10 The Aztecs used the vanilla bean in their chocolate drink, and it was thought of nothing more than a flavoring for chocolate until Queen Elizabeth I tasted an all-vanilla flavored sweet meat.11

She popularized the flavor as being enjoyable in more than just a chocolate drink. In 1780, when Thomas Jefferson lived in Paris, he copied a recipe for vanilla ice cream that is now protected in the Library of Congress.12

It requires more manual labor to produce vanilla than any other crop in the world, which explains the cost.13 It can take at least three years from planting a 3-foot vine until it produces pods to be sold. It requires from 5 to 7 pounds of green vanilla beans to produce 1 pound of processed vanilla, another reason for the high cost.

There are an estimated 18,000 products sold flavored with vanilla, most of which is synthetic since the cost of natural vanilla is nearly $300 per pound.14 Synthetic vanilla is approximately 20 times cheaper than real vanilla.15

Once the beans are cured, vanilla may be used in its natural form when the seeds are scraped directly from the pod and added to your baked dishes.16 The beans may be used to produce an extract used in baking or oil infusions for aromatherapy. The oil infusions can also be used for massages to help relieve sore muscles and joints due to vanilla’s antinociceptive (blocks pain sensation) properties.17

This vining orchid grows well in containers

The vanilla bean plant grows as a vine. In subtropical and tropical areas, it may be grown outdoors in the ground, but in the remainder of the world it will do better in a container in a protected environment. This orchid is epiphytic,18 meaning the vines have roots beneath each leaf that are able to absorb water from the air.19

Orchids are started from a cutting that do best in a combination of half bark and half potting soil20 in a pot design for orchids with adequate drainage holes.21 While this mixture is a little denser than most soil for orchids, the initial plant will need the special formulation to provide nutrients while it grows.22

Once the epiphytic roots develop, the plant no longer depends on the roots in the potting mix. At this point, you may want to transplant the orchid into a pot with fir bark and an orchid mixture.23

As a vine, you’ll want to provide the plant with something to climb on. In the tropics, a vanilla orchid can grow up to 300 feet, usually in the trees. However, growing in your greenhouse or home, you’ll want to keep the vine to 20 or 30 feet so it’s more manageable.24 By training the vine to grow laterally, you may harvest more in a smaller space.

Use a slab of hardwood that does not easily rot, such a cedar or cypress as the vertical support.25 The best way to raise a vanilla orchid at home is in a greenhouse, or a room in your home where you can carefully control the light, heat and humidity.26 It grows best in temperatures from 70 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. In cooler temperatures the growth slows.27

Light and humidity important to your vanilla orchid

The plant also requires enough light to produce flowers. Low light will encourage lush green growth, but no flowers. Watch your plant for the color of the foliage. Grown with sufficient light, the leaves will be a green-yellow color with strong vertical growth.28

After the plant has established epiphytic roots, the soil should have exceptional drainage and hold sufficient moisture but also allow for air movement.29 When grown at home, orchids may enjoy an overhead paddle fan on the lowest setting to encourage air movement throughout the area without directly blowing on the plant.

Your vanilla orchid will thrive in high humid conditions when the humidity is kept at 80%30 so the epiphytic roots can gather water from the atmosphere. When the humidity is lower, you will want to mist your plant every day, making sure to provide enough water to keep the soil damp, but not over watered and not allowed to dry out.31

When you water, use enough that it runs from the drainage holes as this soaks the soil but also flushes the collection of waste products. If you live in a humid climate, clay pots work well. In a drier climate or without as much humidity, a plastic pot may hold moisture longer.32

When orchids receive these requirements, they may grow well without fertilizer. However, you’ll get better results when the plant is routinely fed33 every two weeks during the spring and summer.34

Experienced orchid growers believe observation is the key to keeping your plants healthy. Examine them on a regular basis so you can correct any issues before they develop serious problems.35 The moist and humid environment leaves the plants open to root rot, so take care to examine the roots and repot them annually.36

Hand pollination is a learned skill

The insects responsible for pollinating vanilla orchids are not found in the northern hemisphere. If you’re growing your vanilla plant to harvest beans, you’ll need to learn the skill of hand pollination. In 1841, a young slave named Edmond Albius developed an effective means of hand pollinating vanilla during his time on an island in the Indian Ocean.37

The technique for hand pollinating eventually spread to Europe, enabling the plant to be grown in areas where the bees responsible for pollinating did not live.38 The technique requires a little skill and a lot of patience. The plants flower in the morning and live for one day.

Once the vine reaches a height of 3 to 5 feet, it may begin to flower. Gardeners believe it may be the end of the winter months as well as growth overflowing the support that help stimulates flowering.39

The plant blooms in succession, and the flowers appear opposite a leaf node over a period of several weeks. The flowers need to be pollinated in the morning hours. When pollination is successful, you’ll see the area below the flower begin to swell in the coming days. Continue to care for your plant as you do normally, as it requires nearly nine months for the pods to mature to harvest.40

Create a greenhouse effect for best results

Growing your vanilla orchid in a greenhouse or hothouse provides the best condition for the plant. It needs the extra humidity and air circulation. However, don’t despair if you live in an apartment or don’t have the space for a greenhouse in your backyard: Your bathroom is also a good place for high humidity and heat.

Add a ceiling fan for air circulation and a growing light to optimize the environment. Another option is to build your own greenhouse for display in a living area.

Recycled windows built on a table may help you create a self-contained humid environment where you may show off your plants. The heat from the sun, or an additional growing lamp if you don’t have access to good sunlight, plus misting the plants in an enclosed environment produces the same type of tropical temperatures the vanilla orchid enjoys.

Harvest and prepare your vanilla beans

Vanilla beans are picked by hand as they begin to turn yellow. From successful pollination to maturity, this takes eight to nine months. Take the pod between two fingers and snap it from the vine or use a pair of sharp, recently cleaned scissors to remove the pod.41

Pods do best when they’re scalded the same day they’re harvested.42 Heat a pot of water to 190 degrees Fahrenheit and submerge the beans for 20 seconds. This stops the growth and releases enzymes which are important to the vanilla flavor.43

Remove the pods and wrap them in a wool towel, then place them in a dark, airtight container, called sweating the pods. This continues the process of developing the complex components that give vanilla its unique aroma.44 When the beans are cured in the field, they are left tightly wrapped for two weeks, alternating between being laid in the sun and being returned to containers at night and when rain is on the way.45

On the following day, transfer the beans to a 120-degree Fahrenheit oven. Let them roast for two hours and then return them to the box. Repeat this process of oven drying and sweating for seven days. Once this is completed, place them outside daily to air-dry until the beans are completely cured, which may take up to three months.46

Next, place the beans in a box lined with wax paper and keep them there for a month. This enhances the flavor and aroma. Once the box is opened, the beans will look black and slick with a light coat of oil. If moisture has been allowed in, however, you may find your crop has molded and the beans cannot be used.47

Make your own vanilla bean products

Once you’ve harvested and cured your vanilla beans, it’s time to make your own products. You may scrape out the beans and use them directly in your baking. However, you may want to make your own vanilla extract, which has a longer shelf life than the vanilla bean.48

Gather an 8-ounce glass bottle, seven organically grown vanilla beans and a bottle of 70 proof vodka. If you choose, you may substitute bourbon, rum or brandy for the vodka. Slice the bean length-wise and place the entire thing in the bottle. If it fits more easily when sliced into smaller pieces, that works too.49

Poor in a cup of the alcohol of your choice and make sure the beans are completely submerged. Shake the bottle twice a week, letting the alcohol and beans marinate for eight weeks. Remove the beans and enjoy. Store the bottle at room temperature and out of direct sunlight.50

Pure vanilla essential oil does not exist, but vanilla scented infused oil can be made at home. Gather two cups of jojoba or sesame oil, six organic vanilla beans, a large glass jar or double boiler, a bit of time and a lot of patience.51 Slice the beans lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and place them in a sterilized jar or pot. Next, cut the beans into smaller pieces and place those with the seeds.

You may choose a cold or hot infusion. A cold infusion is made simply by pouring the oil into the jar with the seeds and the beans, capping it and setting it in a sunny window for four to six weeks.52

If you choose a hot infusion, set up your double boiler and place the vanilla and oil into the pot on top. Set the temperature to low and put a lid on the pot. You may keep this running throughout the day for two to three days while you’re at home and awake, ensuring the water at the bottom of a double boiler does not evaporate.

After this time the oil is ready to be strained through cheesecloth to remove the seeds and beans. You might find that some of the seeds strain through the cheesecloth. This oil may be used as a body oil, facial oil, lip balm or to massage sore joints and muscles.53

Relax in a tub of vanilla bean bath salts

Unwinding at the end of a long day in a relaxing bath is one of life’s joys. Consider using your own products to control the quality, scent and enjoy health benefits as well. A jar of colored bath salts makes a thoughtful and healthy gift. Making your own bath salts at home is a simple process.

Gather Epsom salt, vanilla infused oil, baking soda and food coloring if you’d like to add color. The Epsom salt helps your body’s natural detoxification system,54 while baking soda helps soothe irritated skin55 and vanilla adds a soothing aroma.

Mix the salt and soda together. Add food coloring if you like, and mix it really well. Add vanilla infused oil, again mixing thoroughly. Store it in an airtight container.