Vanilla blooms abound!
This past December, Smithsonian Gardens large trellised specimen of Vanilla pompona graced our greenhouses with luxurious blooms. Beautiful umbels of impressive, successively blooming flowers appeared at every leaf node on this huge vining orchid. Even though each individual flower lasts less than 24 hours, so many new blooms opened daily that it was a true spectacle for several weeks. A sister species to the better known Vanilla planifolia, the source of the delicious flavoring we all know and love, V. pompona differs in having a much larger, gullet shaped lip. Its seed pods are also used to make a type of vanilla extract, though only locally in Costa Rica and Panama where it grows. Many Vanilla species occur in tropical regions around the world (circumtropical) and therefore are thought to be among the most ancient of orchids, perhaps with a common ancestor existing when the continents were contiguous. Most of these other species are not used for flavoring.
With rampantly growing vines, these orchids climb quickly and become massive specimens in a short time. Generally, they will only bloom when they are very large and mature. Like a philodendron, their plant habit is a combination of terrestrial and epiphytic. Starting as terrestrial plants with thick fibrous roots, aerial roots arising from the leaf axils clasp the sides of trees as they climb upward searching for higher light in which to bloom. They are easy to propagate from cuttings, but as with any succulent, it is best to let the cuts callous for a few days before planting them or they are sure to rot. Indeed, Vanilla plants in Madagascar plantations have fallen prey to a fungal disease in recent years. We produce pods on our plants by pollinating the flowers by hand (“selfing”) as they do in vanilla plantations in Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands.
– Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Specialist