The vanilla bean plant, also known by its botanical name as V. planifolia, is actually a member of the orchid family. Commercial vanilla beans are cultivated in Central and South American countries; particularly in Mexico.
You can plant your own vanilla bean plant at home. You may need to order the plant root or a cutting of the plant via the Internet or through a tropical plant company. If you receive the plant through a tropical plant company or an Internet company, follow the directions that come with it. The vanilla bean plant requires an artificial tropical climate similar to the area where the plant is normally grown. The vanilla bean plant is sensitive to light, heat, and moisture. An ideal environment should be in indirect sunlight with ample humidity and away from extreme cold temperatures.
If you’re lucky, you know someone who already has a mature plant from which you can clip a cutting or two to transplant into a pot at home. If that is the case, take your cutting and put it in the dark for two weeks. Afterward, cut off the bottom leaf of your cutting, and place the cutting into a one-gallon pot. Make sure that there are holes in the bottom of your pot for proper water drainage. And, use light, loose soil for your cutting; such as a mixture of sand and potting soil. Protect your plant by putting it in an area that gets indirect sunlight and is away from any cold drafts. The new planting needs warmth and humidity. So, make sure the planting environment is warm and moist; similar to a tropical rain forest. You can do this by using a fluorescent plant lamp, or in rooms, such as the bathroom, where there is regular humidity.
Provide a post in your planting’s pot since the vanilla bean will grow as a vine and will need a host to grow on. The vanilla bean plant will grow to about 25 feet in length before blooming. Vanilla bean flowers are yellow to greenish-yellow with long tubular flowers; almost like a stretched out daffodil. Once these flowers blossom, you will need to pollinate by hand in order to grow vanilla beans.
To pollinate, remove the lip of the flower. Then, take the pollen from the anther area of the flower and place it in the nectar, which is located in the stigma – a flap that is on the top right column behind the flower. Be careful while handling the vanilla bean plant because the white sap that the plant emits is an irritant to the skin.
After pollination, long green pods will begin growing. At this point, you have a choice to allow the pods to ripen on the plant. Or, you can take the pods off the plant and dry the pods by light and heat during the day; and covering them overnight. Mature pods will be dark brown and will be seven to nine inches long.
Once the pods are dark and dry, you can open the pods and take out the beans to be used in cooking, baking, and other household uses.