Vanilla extract is from the vanilla orchid plant and most of us didn't realize that this well used spice comes from an orchid plant. The species is named Vanilla planifolia and it is "the" primary orchid species of commercial enterprises in the sense of a food product.
It was discovered during the 16th century by Aztec Indians. It is documented that the plant was given by Emperor Montezuma to the Spanish Conquistadors in 1518 and brought to Europe. As it was introduced to European royalty it became very popular and it started to make its way into the kitchens of Europe. It became particularly popular as a flavoring of the cacao, otherwise known as chocolate.
It was the French who started to cultivate this bean in a major way in the Indian Ocean area, especially, Madagascar.The Vanilla orchid is a true epiphyte or air plant and lives in the humid rain forests of central and south America, Mexico, Tahiti and Madagascar. It enjoys the high humidity of these areas and grows as a vine. The vines can reach a length of up to 30 feet. This orchid plant takes 7 to 8 years to mature. The fruit is in the pods of the irregular plant leaves which grow in a zigzag formation on tree trunks. It will eventually produce a flower.
The flower is very short lived as a flower. If it has been fertilized then when the flower dies it will mature into a seed pods. It is this elongated seed pod that is the vanilla bean of culinary fame. These seed pods are dried over a 6 month period. It is these pods that are made into vanilla extract and vanilla powder. The flower is generally a yellow-green color and resembles a Cattleya.
There have been scientific advances using a tissue propagation to grow this orchid more easily and economically to produce more seed pods or "vanilla beans" for commercial use.
You can purchase Vanilla orchid plants to grow yourself and they are not hard to grow as a plant. They do require hot humid environment with temperatures in the 80 - 85 F. (27 C. - 30 C.) range during the day and down to 60- 65 F. ((16 C. - 18 C.) at night in order to thrive and produce flowers. You should also use a balanced fertilizer like one with 20-20-20.
The Vanilla orchid plant requires watering 2 - 3 times a week but there is a need to make sure the moisture is balanced to keep the root from getting too water logged and damaged by root rot.
Growing Vanilla orchids at home require the right environment and a lot of patience. It takes many years for the orchid vine to mature enough to set fruit (seed pods).
I think of Vanilla orchids as a wonderful novelty orchid. As I said, they are easy to grow as a plant. But if you are looking for a flower and a vanilla bean from the plant I do not recommended for beginners or those new to orchids. Unless, of course, you have a greenhouse or live in a tropical environment and can meet the requirements that a vanilla orchid plantneeds to flower and set seed.