A vanilla orchid can be grown outdoors or indoors under the right conditions. To grow vanilla, one needs a cutting from a plant, because this plant is not usually grown from seed. Vanilla plants should be kept moist and require a hot and humid environment.
A cutting from the stem of a plant — a cutting with at least two nodes on it — is necessary to grow vanilla. Seeds are not available for this plant. To prepare a cutting for planting, it should be immersed in water for about 10 minutes. Then the end of the stem containing the nodes should be left soaking in water for three to five days.
After this, the cutting is planted with the bottom of the nodes lying flat on the soil. The rest of the stem should be propped upright and supported by a stake. Soil that is not dense, such as a good orchid potting soil or sphagnum moss, is the best medium in which to grow vanilla. If the plant is growing outdoors, manure also can be used in the mix. Mulch or compost should be placed around the plant to ensure that it does not dry out.
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The vanilla orchid is a climbing orchid and requires support, which can be a tree, wall or trellis. It also needs shade for at least a half day and can thrive, in some instances, in full shade. A plant can grow from 5 feet (1.5 meters) to 50 feet (15.2 meters) long, depending on the variety of vanilla. This climbing orchid is flexible and can be coiled to keep the length manageable and the entire plant sheltered. When plans are made to grow vanilla indoors, a means of exposing it to humidity also should be considered.
These orchids need soil that is moist and well drained. The roots can be susceptible to disease if a dense, or overly damp, soil is used. Minimum temperatures for cultivation range between 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celsius) and 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 degrees Celsius), depending on the variety. A vanilla plant cannot be left out in the winter except in tropical conditions, and it is not frost resistant.
Flowering begins when the vanilla plant reaches maturity, in about three years. Each flower opens for one day and must be pollinated while there is daylight. Vanilla flowers in the wild are pollinated by insects and hummingbirds, but they are usually pollinated by hand for commercial or home growing. Blooms do not all open on the same day, so pollination can be spread out over some time.
The bean pods begin to grow soon after pollination and take about nine months to ripen. They turn yellow when they are ready to be picked and dried. A fully dried vanilla pod will be black. The beans are then removed from the pods and can be used in extracts or directly in some recipes. If one decides to grow vanilla, he or she should be aware that touching the plant or the pods can cause skin irritation.