Vanilla

This page has information about growing vanilla at home in the Northern Territory (NT).

About vanilla

Name: vanilla, vanilla fragrans (orchidaceae).

Origin: Mexico, Guatemala and Central America.

Distribution: vanilla is grown in tropical countries including Madagascar, Reunion and the Comoro Islands and tropical regions of the South Pacific and the West Indies. 

Australian distribution: vanilla can be grown in the NT and north Queensland. There are no commercial plantations in Australia.

Description

Vanilla is a fleshy, herbaceous perennial vine. It can climb trees to a height of up to 15m. 

Vanilla stems are dark green. The leaves are large, flat and oblong shaped, tapering at both ends. 

The flowers are large, pale greenish yellow, fragrant, waxy and orchid-like. The fruit is a long cylindrical capsule called a pod or bean. 

You will need to pollinate your vanilla by hand.

Preferred climate and soil

Vanilla prefers a hot, moist climate with frequent rain and an average temperature of 27 degrees Celsius. A short dry period is needed for flowering. 

Soils should be light and crumbly with adequate drainage. Vanilla needs a thick layer of humus material or mulch. It likes to be partly shaded.

Varieties

There are few vanilla varieties. 

Propagation

Vanilla grows best from cuttings taken from healthy plants. 

Remove the lower two or three leaves from the stem and push into mulch. The stem should be tied to a support until aerial roots take hold. 

You can tie your cutting to a small tree with low branches for shade, or to a trellis with partial shade, for support.

Vanilla needs to be protected from strong winds.

Pests and diseases

There are no recorded vanilla pests in Australia except the green vegetable bug. 

Anthracnose, fusarium and mildew are also known to attack vanilla.

Fruit season

Vanilla flowers between November and December. The flowers must be hand pollinated in the same way as orchids. Watch the video on orchid pollination below.

Vanilla pods are harvested between June and September.

Harvest

The pods should be picked when they are fully grown and the tips turn yellow.

Storage

Vanilla pods must be cured and dried to develop aroma and flavour. 

One way to cure and dry vanilla pods is to follow these steps:

Step 1. Put pods into 80 degrees Celsius water for 30 seconds. Take out and leave to drain for 15 minutes.

Step 2. Spread out the cooked pods on a dark woollen blanket and leave in the sun for two to three hours.

Step 3. Roll up the warm pods inside the blanket and store overnight in an airtight wooden box.

Step 4. Repeat steps 1 to 3 for several days, avoiding overexposure to the sun.

Step 5. Spread out the pods in a well ventilated room to dry slowly for 30 days. Turn them often.

Pods are fully cured when they are a fine chocolate brown colour, flexible and wrinkled. They can be stored in an air-tight container.

Eating

Vanilla is mainly used as an essence for flavouring foods like cakes and ice creams.

Vanilla poisoning

Vanilla poisoning can occur from contact with the latex juice in the green plant. This can cause your skin to swell up. 

Handling pods during curing can also cause skin eruptions, headache, fever and intestinal disorders.

Last updated: 27 June 2017