|B. Rosie Lerner|
Although much of the vanilla used for flavoring and fragrance today is produced synthetically, natural vanilla comes from the seed pod of an orchid plant. Vanilla planifolia is a vigorous, vining orchid that can reach up to 300 feet in its native tropical American environment.
The vine produces greenish-yellow flowers that must be hand-pollinated outside of its native habitat to ensure good fruit set. The pods grow to about 6-9 inches long and are harvested when fully grown but not yet ripe, about 8-9 months after flowering. Vanilla flavor is then further developed by curing and fermenting the pods.
Most commercial production of vanilla takes place in the tropical regions of Mexico and Madagascar where the climate is warm and humid, the soil is rich with organic matter and the vanilla plant is shaded from intense sun by other tropical plants. In fact, the vanilla orchid is often grown on the trunks of shade trees for support of the vines.
One can grow vanilla as a houseplant, but it rarely flowers or fruits in the typical home environment. The temperature, light and, especially, low humidity are not well suited for a vanilla crop. Keep the plant in a warm, brightly lit area, but away from hot drafts from the furnace. Running a humidifier or grouping plants together on pebble trays partially filled with water will add some much-needed moisture to the air. Given the plants potential height, its probably a good thing that it doesnt thrive as a houseplant.