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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).