It’s deceptively simple to start a vanilla vine: Chop off a piece, lay it in the right potting soil and it will start to grow. In fact, the plant thrives in the Keys’ tropical environs. How to pollinate the flowers and nurture the seeds to maturity is a little bit more complicated.
Dr. Charlie Neiditz is Marathon’s expert. Years ago, he was challenged by a nurse to identify the vine she slapped down on his desk; if he could name it, he could keep it.
“Well, I couldn’t,” he said, smiling, “but she let me keep it anyway.”
Neiditz’s interest in vanilla is a mix of agricultural wonder and economic opportunities. “Vanilla is the second most expensive spice, just behind saffron,” he said. “And the Keys are a great place to grow it.”
He’s not kidding. Pound for pound, vanilla costs more than silver. One pound of vanilla beans (cured) costs $190. In fact, eight ounces of high-quality vanilla costs almost $50. (To put that in Keys perspective, imagine paying $50 for one jumbo stone crab claw …)
Alan Chambers is an assistant professor with the University of Florida’s tropical research and education center and horticulture sciences headquartered in Homestead. His job, he said, is to support tropical fruit growers and help them find new and profitable crops.
“Because of the land price in South Florida, our growers need niche and high-value crops,” Chambers said. “There’s lots of ways to make money off vanilla, from selling the pods to creating your own extract.”
The price of vanilla has exploded in recent years due to agricultural and non-agricultural issues in Madagascar, where 80% of vanilla is grown. From 1900 to 1950, vanilla was a valuable crop in Puerto Rico. Growers would sell anywhere from two pounds of vanilla pods to hundreds of pounds to co-ops that would process the spice. Vanilla also prospers in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Hawaii.
“South Florida is perfect for vanilla,” Chambers said. “Vanilla loves hot, it loves humid and it loves the ‘dry spell’ in the winter; that’s when the plant resets and gets ready to flower.”
Growing the vine is easy, Neiditz said. It’s easy to start from a cutting and when replanted underneath a tree, can climb as high as 60 feet with delicate aerial roots attaching to the trunk. But a singular vanilla vine should be trained to pass through the soil more than once so it gets the proper ingredients from the terrestrial roots. At Neiditz’s house behind the airport, it resembles a mat of vines on the lower half of the tree.
A vanilla vine can take up to three years to flower. When it does, it only happens once a year, in April and May. Then the hard work begins.
“You have to put the little bags over the developing buds so the iguanas don’t eat them. And in the Keys you have to pollinate the blooms by hand,” Neiditz said.
On the very day the bloom appears (it only lasts a day), he uses a toothpick to open the flower, and re-fold the flower’s insides. If he’s successful, the flower stays on the plant and begins to grow the vanilla pods. If he’s not, the flower drops off and it’s another year’s wait.
The curing process is even more labor-intensive. Once the pods are ready to be harvested, they must be allowed to dry slowly over time. It takes about three weeks, Neiditz said, and involves first blanching the pods on the stove, then exposing them to the sun for a few hours a day, then wrapping them into a towel to repeat the process again the following day.
Vanilla is a member of the rather large orchid family, which encompasses about 25,000 different species. There are four vanilla species in Florida and only two can be sold as the basis for extracts — Vanilla planifola and Vanilla tahitensis.
Chambers has an email list of about 120 growers interested in the vanilla crop. Email him at [email protected] to be added to the forum. To learn more about growing vanilla in Florida, visit sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu and search “vanilla.”