If you're a baker who uses vanilla often in your creations or you just want to feel the sense of achievement that comes with growing your own vanilla, you'll be happy to know that vanilla makes a wonderful houseplant. It takes a bit of patience and care to grow a vanilla plant healthy and old enough to produce vanilla beans, but it can definitely be done.
While you can technically grow a vanilla bean plant from seed, it's better to buy a plant than try to start from seeds. Starting these plants from seed is difficult, takes a long time, and germination is erratic. You can find plants by searching nurseries or plant catalogs and websites for vanilla orchid or vanilla bean plant. Vanilla bean plant, (Vanilla planifolia) is a member of the orchid family, native to Mexico, and needs the same conditions to grow well.
How to Grow Vanilla Beans
The first thing to keep in mind is that only mature vanilla plants will produce beans. Your plant needs to be at least five years old to bloom and produce pods. You can purchase mature vanilla plants, but they're quite a bit more expensive than younger plants. Giving it the right conditions will ensure that the plant is healthy, so once it's mature, it'll produce beans easily. Unless you live in a tropical area (hardiness zone 10 or warmer) you'll have to grow vanilla indoors.
Providing Support for Vanilla Bean Plants
Vanilla bean plants are interesting. They're semi-epiphytic (meaning they form roots along their stems aboveground) and terrestrial, meaning they also form roots in the soil at the base of the plant.
They're also vining plants that can grow to an astounding 200 feet long in the wild. They obviously won't grow that long in the average home, but they'll still need a support to grow on.
Most vanilla growers install a plank of wood, such as cedar or cypress, or a natural branch or even a moss pole, partially burying the base of it into the soil of the pot in which the vanilla plant is growing. As it starts to vine, carefully train it to cling to the wood or pole, loosely wrapping it in a spiraling pattern around the support.
Light, Warmth, and Humidity
These three factors have the biggest impact on how well your vanilla will grow.
Vanilla needs bright, indirect light. In its native habitat, this is a jungle understory plant. It doesn't like direct light, which will bleach or scorch the leaves. Placing your vanilla plant near an eastern or southern window that has a bit of filtered light, such as through a curtain, is ideal.
Vanilla thrives in temperatures of 70 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. If your home falls below those temperatures, you may want to consider adding a small heater or a plant heat mat to the area where your vanilla plant is growing. It's also best to keep your plant out of cold drafts and away from heating or cooling vents.
Vanilla plants love humidity. Because they're semi-epiphytic, they absorb water from their surroundings, as well as via roots that grow into the soil. The more humid it is, the more moisture that will be available for those vital air roots. The plant will be healthier overall if it has plenty of humidity.
There are a few ways to increase the humidity for your vanilla bean plants.
- Place a humidifier nearby.
- Mist the plant a couple times every day.
- Place the plant on a tray or saucer filled with pebbles and water. The evaporation of the water will add humidity to the air.
As mentioned above, it's important to provide humidity, but you'll also have to water the soil. It's important to let the soil dry out almost completely between waterings, then water deeply and thoroughly, allowing all of the excess water to drain.
Soil and Feeding
Like most members of the orchid family, vanilla plants grow best in either sphagnum moss, bark chip orchid potting medium, or even a combination of the two. You want something loose and light that will allow plenty of oxygen to reach the roots.
When you water, you'll also need to water the wooden plank the plant is being trained on. You can do this by misting or spraying it.
Vanilla bean plants need regular feeding during the spring and summer. Ideally, they should be fed with a diluted mixture of balanced fertilizer every other watering. They do not need to be fertilized during the fall and winter, since growth slows quite a bit during those periods.
Waiting for Blooms
Vanilla bean plants don't bloom until they're fully mature, which is around three to five years. There is some debate about what spurs a vanilla bean to finally bloom. Some growers believe that once it grows too tall for its support and starts bending over it, that spurs blooming. Others think that longer-than-normal period of dryness during the winter is what prompts the plant to bloom. Just know that it will happen eventually, and when it does, it's worth celebrating.
Vanilla plants produce creamy white, orchid-like flowers. Each flower only lasts for one day, though it will produce several flowers in each cluster that it forms. If you're trying to grow your own vanilla beans, you'll have to play close attention to when the plant is blooming; they'll need a little help from you for pollination.
How to Hand-Pollinate Vanilla Blossoms
In the wild, certain types of bees would have pollinated Vanila planifolia, but in your home, you'll have to undertake the task yourself. This is best done during the morning, before the flower begins fading.
- When a blossom opens, inspect it so you can identify the different parts. Specifically, you need to be able to identify the anther (which is the female part that produces pollen) and the stigma (which is the male part that the pollen gets deposited on.) The stigma has a petal "shield" around it, and you can gently pull that back to reveal the sigma.
- Collect pollen from the anthers on the end of a toothpick or chopstick.
- Pull the shield around the stigma back. Gently apply the pollen you collected from the anthers onto the stigma.
- Done! If pollination was successful, you'll see a pod forming in about a week.
Once the pod starts forming, it'll be about another nine months before the pod is fully grown and ready to harvest. You'll know it's time when the tips of the pod begin to turn yellow. At this point, they should be cut from the plant with scissors or pruners and cured, which is a required part of the harvesting process.
Success With Vanilla Bean Plants
Growing your own vanilla is not a task for the impatient gardeners among us. But having your own supply of fragrant, delicious vanilla is most definitely worth it.