Vanilla orchid (Vanilla phaeantha/V. fragrans) is also called leafy vanilla orchid. It grows in southwestern Florida, throughout the Caribbean, and in some locations in Central America.
In southwestern Florida, it grows in swamps and sloughs in the Fakahatchee Strand and in nearby moist, shaded areas.
Vanilla phaeantha is one of four species of vanilla orchids found in Florida. Only one other of these orchids has leaves.
Vanilla phaeantha starts its life growing on the forest floor, but it quickly grows onto nearby trees, anchoring its roots to tree bark. There is a single root at each axil along the zigzagging stem.
Eventually, the terrestrial portion of the plant dies, leaving the remaining plant as an epiphyte that gets nitrogen from the air and decaying leaves.
Once a plant matures, clusters of buds form at leaf axils. Flowering season is typically June through July, but the vanilla orchids growing along the Conservancy of Southwest Florida Nature Center's Hammock Trail are known to begin blooming in April.
Flowers open over several weeks, usually one-at-a-time. As shown at left, flowers are large (up to 6 inches) and greenish-yellow. Each flower opens in the morning and begins to fade by afternoon. If a flower is not pollinated sometime before nightfall, it will shrivel and fall off the plant.
However if it is successfully pollinated, the stem behind the flower swells into a seed pod called a "vanilla bean."
Only one insect is known to pollinate vanilla orchids, the melipona bee. About the size of a flea, it is a stingless bee. To assure pollination, the bee must move a trap door between the male and female parts of a flower. Where melipona bees exist, the probability of pollination is less than 10%. Vanilla beans are never produced from the orchids at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida Nature Center, because there are no melipona bees in the area.
Although the bean from Vanilla phaeantha can be used for vanilla flavoring, a different vanilla species, Vanilla planifolia (Flat-Leaved Vanilla), is used commercially for this spice. Interestingly, V. planifolia is native to Mexico, but Madagascar accounts for much of the global production of vanilla beans. In Madagascar, orchid vines are cultivated and flowers are hand-pollinated.
Warning: Handling the vanilla orchid may cause skin irritation or other allergic reactions.
© Photographs and text by Susan Leach Snyder (Conservancy of Southwest Florida Volunteer).
Please report errors to Susan Snyder @ email@example.com