Vanilla planifolia (V. fragrans, in some classifications) is a species of vanilla orchid native to tropical evergreen forests of eastern Mexico and the Caribbean watersheds of Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras (FNA 2011). It is a primary source of vanilla flavoring. Often referred to as “vanilla,” other common names are flat-leaved, Mexican, or Bourbon vanilla (GRIN 2011).
Like all members of its genus, V. planifolia is an herbaceous perennial vine with a long fleshy climbing stem and adventitious roots that can attach to trees or penetrate soil. Flowers are greenish-yellow, fragrant, and waxy, with a diameter of 5 cm (2 in). The plant has many dainty flowers, and several will open at a time, but each flower lasts only a day. In their native range, flowers are pollinated by small euglossine bees (Encyclopedia Britannica 1993, FNA 2011), but fewer than one percent of flowers are pollinated in the wild. To ensure fruit in cultivation, flowers must be pollinated manually, during the morning; and pollinators can pollinate about 1,000 flowers per day (Wikipedia 2011). If pollination does not occur, the flower is dropped the next day.
Fruit is produced only on mature plants, starting at two or three years old, which are generally over 3 m (10 ft) long. The fruits are 15–23 cm (6-9 in) long pods (often incorrectly called beans, but technically elongate, fleshy and later dehiscent capsules), filled with thousands of tiny globose seeds (0.3 mm diameter). Fruits mature after five to nine months. Yield varies from 30–150 capsules per plant. After harvest, the fresh vanilla pods have no aroma, but must be cured for four to five months—a process of drying and fermenting pods, which encourages secretion of vanillin in tiny crystals on the outside of the pod. Vanilla extract (vanillin) is obtained from this portion of the plant.
Vanilla was used to flavor xocoatl, a chocolate beverage of the Aztecs. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortes drank it when he visited Montezuma’s court, and the Spaniards soon took vanilla to Europe, where it quickly became popular (Encyclopedia Brittanica 1993). Today, vanilla is used in numerous sweet foods and beverages, including chocolate, ice cream, and baked goods, as well as in cosmetics, perfume, and candles.
V. planifolia is cultivated in shaded areas in hot, wet, tropical climates. Global vanilla production in 2009 was 9.8 million tons from 73,480 cultivated hectares (FAOSTAT 2011). Although Madagascar and Mexico were historically the leading producers, Indonesia was the top producer in 2009, followed by Madagascar and China; Mexico was fourth. These four countries produced 88% of the world total. Smaller amounts are produced in Turkey, French Polynesia and Tonga in the Pacific, several African countries, and islands off Madagascar (Comoros and Reúnion). India formerly produced significant amounts, but diseases and pests have led to declining cultivation (Vanitha et al. 2011).
Vanilla has been cultivated and escaped or persisted in many tropical areas, including south Florida (including in Miami area and Everglades National Park (FNA 2011).
Distribution: Formerly cultivated in Puerto Rico for the commercial production of vanilla. Today, some of these plantations persist, with some populations naturalized in moist forested areas at middle elevations. Species native to Mexico, but widely cultivated in the tropics. Also on St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas.
Public Forests: El Yunque and Maricao.
Vanilla planifolia Jackson in Andrews, Bot. Repos. 8: t. 538. 1808.
Non-woody vine, glabrous, scarcely branched, that climbs by means of aerial roots and attains 7-10 m in length. Stems cylindrical, 5-10 mm in diameter, producing watery and caustic latex when wounded; internodes up to 12 cm long; nodes slightly swollen, producing a single adventitious root per node; the lateral branches pendulous. Leaves persistent, oblong, elliptical, or ovate, fleshy, rigid, 14-25 × 4.5-8 cm, the apex acute or acuminate, the margins entire, slightly revolute; upper surface dull; lower surface dull; petioles 1-1.5 cm long, thick. Inflorescence a pendulous axillary raceme, few-flowered; peduncle flexuous; bracts fleshy, broadly ovate, 5-10 mm long. Sepals yellowish green, thick, free, expanded, 3.5-5.5 × 1.3 cm, elliptic-oblanceolate. Petals similar, but dorsally keeled and smaller; lip greenish yellow, reflexed at the apex, with a retuse apical lobe, the basal portion unguiculate, adnate to the column; column arcuate, 3-3.5 cm long. Fruits black when ripe, pendulous, cylindrical, fragrant, up to 25 cm long.
Phenology:Flowering from February to April, but rarely producing fruits, because its natural pollinators are not found in Puerto Rico.
Status: Exotic, naturalized by asexual reproduction.
Selected Specimens Examined: Acevedo-Rdgz., P. 4058; 7077; 9323.
Life History and Behavior
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Vanilla planifolia
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Vanilla planifolia
Public Records: 6
Specimens with Barcodes: 6
Species With Barcodes: 1
Vanilla planifolia is a species of vanilla orchid. It is native to Mexico, and is one of the primary sources for vanilla flavouring, due to its high vanillin content. Common names are Flat-leaved Vanilla, Tahitian Vanilla (for the Pacific stock formerly thought to be a distinct species), and West Indian Vanilla (also used for the Pompona Vanilla, V. pompona). Often, it is simply referred to as "the vanilla". It was first scientifically named in 1808.
Like all members of the genus Vanilla, V. planifolia is a vine. It uses its fleshy roots to support itself as it grows.
Flowers are greenish-yellow, with a diameter of 5 cm (2 in). They last only a day, and must be pollinated manually, during the morning, if fruit is desired. The plants are self-fertile, and pollination simply requires a transfer of the pollen from the anther to the stigma. If pollination does not occur, the flower is dropped the next day. In the wild, there is less than 1% chance that the flowers will be pollinated, so in order to receive a steady flow of fruit, the flowers must be hand-pollinated when grown on farms.
Fruit is produced only on mature plants, which are generally over 3 m (10 ft) long. The fruits are 15-23 cm (6-9 in) long pods (often incorrectly called beans). Outwardly they resemble small bananas. They mature after about five months, at which point they are harvested and cured. Curing ferments and dries the pods while minimizing the loss of essential oils. Vanilla extract is obtained from this portion of the plant.
- "Vanillia planifolia synonyms in Tropicos".
- Reinvestigation of vanillin contents and component ratios of vanilla extracts using high-performance liquid chromatography and gas chromatography. Scharrer A and Mosandl A, Deutsche Lebensmittel-Rundschau, 2001, volume 97, number 12, pages 449-456, INIST:14118840
Pollinators are euglossine bees (J. D. Ackerman 1983), which do not occur in Florida. Natural pollination has been recorded in Florida, although very rarely (C. A. Luer 1972).
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