When there is an aroma of vanilla coming from the Christmas oven – do you think of orchids?  You should !

The long black pods with the sticky, aromatic content are the seed capsules of Vanilla planifolia, an orchid species. Vanilla actually belongs to the largest orchids, that is to say they can climb to 10m. high. Tlilxochitl, black flowers the Aztecs called them, had themselves already valued the species which came originally from Mexico. Today vanilla is planted in the tropics worldwide; Madagascar and Réunion in the Indian Ocean are the main producers. Bourbon vanilla even had its name from the island of Réunion which was formerly called ´Ile Bourbon` until the French Revolution spelt the end of the rule of the Bourbons.

Originally the search for vanilla failed commercially outside Mexico. The reason being the demanding fertilization mechanics of vanilla. Only special species of bee and humming birds that are found in Mexico and Central America exclusively would feed at the plants. Only when a Belgian botanist began in 1837 to understand the complicated reproductive mechanics of the plant, could artificial pollination in glasshouses succeed.

It takes five years of intensive labour before a freshly planted V. planifolia yields. The troublesome artificial pollination of individual flowers using a cactus thorn is, today, mostly women´s work. A trained worker fertilizes 1000 to 1500 flowers per day and one can only hope that, of the final high price, a reasonable sum goes to her. The market price of vanilla fluctuates wildly and is influenced by large concerns such as Coca Cola, hurricanes, complete plantation devastation, speculation and competition from the synthetics industry.

Those with a relish for the taste of vanilla agree: it must be the real thing, recognizable as the black specks, the seeds of the plant. Vanilla turns black after the fermentation process; earlier the fruit hangs as long green beans from the runners.

Vanilla is the only culinary valuable orchid that can be cultivated in our domestic surroundings. It is quite otherwise with the traditional flowering orchids, often misused as last minute presents, landing on one or another Christmas gift table. Specifically, the cultivation of hybrids of the Genus Phalaenopsis, Cattleya, Dendrobium or Cymbidium are found as potted specimens which, thanks to modern cultivation methods, are affordable. Previously each orchid had to be collected in the tropical rainforest and sent by sea to Europe. That was expensive and, consequently, orchids acquired a reputation as a very rare luxury item.

The exotic splendour of the flowers naturally contributes to the bird of paradise image. The orchid family is unbelievably imaginative and versatile in the development of form and colour combinations of their flowers. What is especially valued by orchid enthusiasts is the longevity of the flower clusters. While a cut flower arrangement lands on the compost after a couple of days the enigmatic orchid flower remains unchanged and perfect on its stalk.

What can we do in order to keep them so beautiful? Under no circumstances do too much– for example watering. It is true that orchids come from the tropical rainforest but they are not bog plants. More than half of all orchids are epiphytes, ie growing on other plants not as parasites but only for support. There they are soaked by heavy rain showers which rapidly drain away. However, if an orchid´s roots are immersed in water for any time, its death is guaranteed. Depending on size once or twice weekly watering is usually sufficient. A specialized orchid pot has large holes in its base to allow for rapid run off and often stands on a layer of Leca clay granules or fine pebble gravel to improve drainage. Those who want to cosset their orchids can occasionally use a water spray.

Fertilizers can also be overdone and do more damage than good. Orchids are very modest in their demands and are very sensitive to salt. Therefore, use the already heavily diluted special orchid fertilizer, better even underdosed, and pay careful attention to the resting stage when flowering and growth are discontinued.

The roots of epiphytic orchids curl themselves around their substrate like a monkey´s fist and are able to absorb nutrients from rainwater and air. Therefore, orchid rule number three: never plant epiphytic orchids in soil. Their roots need light and air so plant them in bark, peat or similar materials that let air through. If it becomes necessary to repot then buy special orchid compost in a garden centre.

The temperature and light requirements of tropical orchid plants are very varied.

The genus Cattleya needs a lot of light whereas Phalaenopsis can even be kept on a light northern windowsill. In view of their natural habitat in the shade of tree crowns most orchids should be protected from direct midday sun which can burn the leaves.

With these few basics the orchid beginner who simply wants to feast his eyes on tropical splendour should initially succeed. In the high temples of orchid reproduction things are much more complicated than in the example of Vanilla planifolia already cited. Effective pollination of orchids often depends not only on specific pollinators but also on fungal symbiosis. Successful producers employ meristem culture, that, is using young plant tissue to produce genetically identical clones.

A completely different fascination is wild orchids. Who wants to experience that must go out in the spring with his eyes wide open and discover the terrestrial orchids of the Iberian peninsula – the many species of  Orchis, Ophrys or Serapias. But that is another story.

Original publication in ESA 12/2007 under the title Vanilles Verwandtschaft