I recently had a rude awakening while shopping for my favorite brand of Madagascar vanilla. Prices of my beloved bottle of vanilla have jumped from $21.00 for a 16 oz. bottle to up to $75.00 for the exact same bottle. I've always known that pure vanilla is made by combining vanilla beans with alcohol (I prefer bourbon vanilla) and allowed to age. However, I didn't think much past the bean.
Vanilla bean pods are grown on a specific orchid plant (Vanilla planifolia) commercially grown in tropical climates. Ten to twenty degrees north and south of the equator. Vanilla orchids are the only orchid plant that produces an edible fruit.
They were originally discovered climbing in trees in Mexico and has since been introduced to other tropical and subtropical regions such as Madagascar, the Island of Reunion, Indonesia, Hawaii, Caribbean, Tahiti, and Comoro Island. 75% of the vanilla we use comes from Madagascar and Reunion Island.
On March 9, 2017, Madagascar was hit by a Cyclone that damaged 30% of their vanilla orchid crop. This devastating storm caused vanilla prices to skyrocket. Prices have remained high as the crop has not recovered. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron.
Vanilla is a very labor-intensive crop. Vanilla orchids start producing blooms after the plant is 3 years old and must be pollinated by hand in commercial production. The blooms stay open for only one day and must be pollinated within 12 hours of blooming. Blooms don't set all at once, so the plants must be pollinated continuously. Hummingbirds, or Melipona bee species native to Mexico naturally pollinate vanilla orchids. Seed pods mature after 9 months, and they mature at different rate according to when the blooms were pollinated. The mature pods cure for 3 months before they are ready to use.
Frugal options other than pure vanilla extract are: imitation vanilla, vanilla bean paste, and vanilla bean powder. You can also try different flavoring options all together.
If you feel adventurous and want to grow a vanilla orchid, you can purchase vanilla orchards online. They cost around $30.00. They prefer high humidity and prefer temperatures that don't drop below 55 degrees. Bright light and filtered shade are their light preferences. Orchid soil mixture should also be used for the potting medium.
If you have other questions about your garden or landscape, feel free to contact a Master Gardener volunteer at the University of Illinois Extension office in Charleston at 217-345-7034. You can also check out the many horticulture webpages at the U of I Extension’s website by visiting http://web.extension.illinois.edu/ccdms/ . And be sure to like the Master Gardeners’ Facebook page, at www.facebook.com/ColesCountyMasterGardeners.