Devar left the main ‘track’ and headed to grandfathers house to see his vanilla plantation.
Vanilla is a flavour derived from orchids of the genus Vanilla, primarily from the Mexican species which is flat-leaved. Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican people cultivated the vine of the vanilla orchid, called tlilxochitl by the Aztecs, and Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés is credited with introducing both vanilla and chocolate to Europe in the 1520’s. Initial attempts to cultivate vanilla outside Mexico and Central America proved futile because of the symbiotic relationship between the plant and its natural pollinator, the local species of Melipona bee. In 1837, Belgian botanist Charles François Antoine Morren discovered this fact and pioneered a method of artificial pollination. His method proved financially unworkable. In 1841, Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave who worked on Réunion island in the Indian Ocean, discovered the plant could be hand-pollinated. Hand-pollination then set the plant on a global road.
Vanilla (vanilla tahitensis), grows like a vine.
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron, because growing the vanilla seed pods is labour-intensive. Despite the expense, vanilla is highly valued for its flavour, which author Frederic Rosengarten, Jr. described in The Book of Spices as "pure, spicy, and delicate" and its complex floral aroma depicted as a "peculiar bouquet". As a result, vanilla is widely used both commercially and domestically - perfume manufacture, aromatherapy oils, body lotion, baking, flavouring, especially good in ice cream and many other uses.
The Totonac people, who inhabit the East Coast of Mexico in the present-day state of Veracruz, were the first to cultivate vanilla. According to Totonac mythology, the tropical orchid was born when Princess Xanat, forbidden by her father from marrying a mortal, fled to the forest with her lover. The lovers were captured and beheaded. Where their blood touched the ground, the vine of the tropical orchid grew.
The vanilla flower.
Vanilla was completely unknown in the Old World before Cortés. Spanish explorers arriving on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the early 16th century gave vanilla its current name. Spanish and Portuguese sailors and explorers brought vanilla into Africa and Asia later that century. They called it vainilla, or "little pod". The word vanilla entered the English language in 1754, when the botanist Philip Miller wrote about the genus in his Gardener’s Dictionary.
Devar points to the female ‘part’.
Devar gently unrolls the male ‘part’ scrapes the pollen off and deposits it on the female ‘part’, this has to be done as each flower appears. This process has a wonderful word – fecundation, to produce a fruit, the vanilla bean.
Ripening and to fully brown when they can be picked, then many, many weeks to lose enough water to be ready to sell.
Each vine can produce many flowers.
There is no way to predict how many beans will appear. A variety of lengths, loads or few but very long.
Grandfather strips out plants as soon as they are nine and starts again.
The vanilla fruit grows quickly on the vine, but is not ready for harvest until maturity - approximately six to nine months. Harvesting vanilla fruits is as labour-intensive as pollinating the blossoms. Immature dark green pods are not harvested. Pale yellow discoloration that commences at the distal end of the fruits is an indication of the maturity of pods. Each fruit ripens at its own time, requiring a daily harvest. To ensure the finest flavour from every fruit, each individual pod must be picked by hand just as it begins to split on the end. Overmatured fruits are likely to split, causing a reduction in market value. Its commercial value is fixed based on the length and appearance of the pod.
If the fruit is more than six inches in length, it belongs to first-quality product. The largest fruits greater than six inches and over eight inches are usually reserved for the gourmet vanilla market, for sale to top chefs and restaurants. If the fruits are between four and five inches long, pods are under the second-quality category, and fruits less than four inches are third-quality category. Each fruit contains thousands of tiny black vanilla seeds. Vanilla fruit yield depends on the care and management given to the hanging and fruiting vines. Any practice directed to stimulate aerial root production has a direct effect on vine productivity. A five-year-old vine can produce between 3.3 and 6.6 pounds of pods, and this production can increase up to 13 pounds after a few years.
This plantation used to produce two hundred tons of vanilla beans each year, with a staff of three he now has a yield of five hundred pounds.
The top vanilla producers in tonnes in 2011 were:
1. 3,500 - Indonesia
2. 3,000 - Madagascar
3. 1,385 - China
4. 362 - Mexico
5. 287 - Turkey
6. 202 - Tonga
7. 52 - French Polynesia
8. 42 - Cosmoros
9. 24 - Uganda
10. 20 - Malawi
11. 11 - Guadeloupe
12. 10 - Kenya
13. 10 - Zimbabwe
14. 8 – Reunion
The market price of vanilla rose dramatically in the late 1970’s after a tropical cyclone ravaged key croplands. Prices remained high through the early 1980’s despite the introduction of Indonesian vanilla. In the mid-1980’s, the cartel that had controlled vanilla prices and distribution since its creation in 1930 disbanded. Prices dropped 70% over the next few years, to nearly US$20 per kilogram; prices rose sharply again after tropical cyclone Hudah struck Madagascar in April 2000. The cyclone, political instability, and poor weather in the third year drove vanilla prices to an astonishing US$500 per kilogram in 2004, bringing new countries into the vanilla industry. A good crop, coupled with decreased demand caused by the production of imitation vanilla, pushed the market price down to the $40 per kilogram range in the middle of 2005. By 2010, prices were down to US$20/per kilo.
Madagascar (especially the fertile Sava region) accounts for much of the global production of vanilla. Mexico, once the leading producer of natural vanilla with an annual yield of 500 tons, produced only 10 tons of vanilla in 2006. An estimated 95% of "vanilla" products are artificially flavored with vanillin derived from lignin instead of vanilla fruits.
Devar has no interest in taking over the business, he prefers to run his tours, hire out a few dune buggies and go fishing in the late afternoon. That said, he naturally fecundated any flower he passed and moved the markers to show the workers where to begin tomorrow. This local variety is world renowned for it’s powerful fragrance and strong taste. Very rich in oil, its beans are shinier and more scented than other species. Today, Raiatea and Tahaa produce three quarters of the local production.
Tahitian vanilla is the French Polynesian type Vanilla tahitiensis strain. Genetic analysis shows this species is possibly a cultivar from a hybrid-cross of Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla odorata. The species was introduced in 1848 by French Admiral François Alphonse Hamelin to French Polynesia from the Philippines, where it was introduced from Guatemala by the Manila Galleon trade.
We steeped outside and found a really pretty plant with orange berries. Devar didn’t name it, but pointed to the sticks produced when the berries fall off. These make the perfect fecundation sticks.
As we headed back to the van we passed a mound of coconut husks, ready to be put around the base of the vanilla plants. This material holds an enormous amount water, reducing the need to water to once every three days.
Vanilla grows best in a hot, humid climate from sea level to an elevation of 1500 m. The ideal climate has moderate rainfall, evenly distributed through ten months of the year. Optimum temperatures for cultivation are 15–30 °C during the day and 15–20 °C during the night. Ideal humidity is around 80%. However, since greenhouse vanilla is grown near the equator and under polymer (HDPE) netting (shading of 50%), this humidity can be achieved by the environment. Most successful vanilla growing and processing is done in the region within 10 to 20° of the equator.
Soils for vanilla cultivation should be loose, with high organic matter content and loamy texture. They must be well drained, and a slight slope helps in this condition. Vanilla requires organic matter, so three or four applications of mulch a year are adequate for the plant.
Devar told us that to begin a business costs an awful lot of money and time before the first yield. The Government helps with set-up costs on a loan basis. Years ago there were many co-operatives but over time they broke down, now there are only independents. Grandfather has a calendar and visits various villages to sell his beans. Devar takes many home where his wife Linda looks after the drying beans. She puts them out in the sun for three hours a day, then wraps them in protective cloths, lays them in a box, so they can sweat out their water content.
Grandfather entered a ‘One Careful Owner’ trailer, we thought vey sweet.
Yo approved and then it was time to leave.
ALL IN ALL WHAT A PLANT
AMAZINGLY LABOUR INTENSIVE, WE NOW UNDERSTAND ITS COST