Growing Vanilla In Nicaragua

By Pat Werner

Once in awhile I hear of a very good idea, along with many that are not so hot. I recently attended a seminar about growing vanilla in Nicaragua, and I think it is a very good idea. Like other orchids, they have been growing here for a long time, and so are adapted to the environment and not so subject to finicky plagues. In wandering the mountains I have run into vanilla many times, the more common species, Vanilla pompona. It was exported from the Coco River in the 17th century, along with sarsaparilla, which was then considered a medicine. Vanilla was always considered an aromatic spice. Later, inventive chemists in the early 20th century, developed ways of using organic chemistry to make synthetic flavoring. Luckily, it is just not as exquisitely flavorful as natural vanilla. Which leads to its value.

Vanilla is one of a very few members of the orchid genus that has economic value. Another, which has a big pseudobulb, likes the hot rocks of Masaya volcano, and has a magnificent flower, the Cyrtopodium punctatum, is used farther north in Central America to make furniture glue. Vanilla is the only orchid I know that is eaten. We all have tried vanilla ice cream, and used its essence in a dozen different cookie recipes. I even remember one old drunk that liked to drink vanilla extract that had been dissolved in alcohol. When he got loaded he smelled kind of like a ginger nap cookie.

There are at least four species of vanilla in Nicaragua. The rarest is the V. helleri, found by intrepid orchidist Alfonse Heller sometime in the 1950s. He found it by La Libertad close to the Babilonia gold mine, so his widow told me, and that is where I looked for it. I never found it, and I think that place is now a big open pit gold mine. The also rare V. odorata is around, occasionally. The V. planifiolia, the species used internationally for vanilla production, is found on the Caribbean coast. I remember seeing, from the sea in a boat, trees covered with it around Monkey Point. If I get enthused enough, I may go back to the RACS and look for it, though that place is chigger and tick heaven. Lastly there is the V. pompona, the species I have found in numerous places in Matagalpa, Jinotega, and especially Nueva Segovia.

The mountain Bayancún, if you can find it, has a lot of V. pompona on it. V. pompona, then called vanillón, was apparently the vanilla collected by the Miskito Indians in colonial times and sold to the British, who exported it to Europe. It is my favorite, with a striking yellow and orange flower, and grows anywhere with not much care. Only problem with V. pompona is that the sap from the vine is quite caustic and may eat a hole in your skin, so be careful. Old Jon Hall once told me that and I thought he was blowing smoke. I then picked a vine and found out he was telling the truth.

Growing vanilla is no laughing matter as it generates serious monetary rewards. Its present market value, at the producer level, for cured seed pods, called sometimes bean pods, is 500$ per kg. Each mature vanilla vine produces about one kg of seed pods per year. The vanilla vines are inexpensive to purchase and last for several years. Since they are already adapted to the tropical environment, care and feeding of the vines is easy and simple, You do not have to go to total warfare, for example with zompopos, a necessity if you try to grow grapes or roses. They need some shade, but not total shade, and living under or attached to xiquelite or espadilla works just fine.

As to altitude, between 500-1000 meters is optimum; apparently they do not do well, at least in Mexico. in the hot lowlands, Places around Managua, Granada, and Leon may not work so good. Perhaps the most unpleasant part is pollinating the flower. It is little short of rape that has to happen to the stigma of the flower, when you squash the pollinia against it, after lifting away a membrane that separates the two. A little sharpened stick works just fine to pierce the sepal and expose the pollinia. Ouch!

The fertilized ovary begins to grow and stretches out and grows for eight or so months, at which time the seed pod, or bean pod, can be harvested. There are a few things to remember to plant the vines, and how to provide water and mulch, especially in the dry season, but those things are relatively simple and inexpensive to do. So there you have it.

Few things get my juices flowing, but growing vanilla has piqued my interest, and so I am going to get some plants from old Jefferson Shriver of Bosque Gaia in Diriamba, and get my gardener busy putting in drip hose, planting the young vines in shady places, and get ready to pollinate some flowers. There are worse things you can do retired. If I get lucky I might even make a Cordoba or two on my tiny finca on the outskirts of Diriamba which will make me happy. After all, I really do need another pair of fancy, jingling spurs and a silver bit for my horse. There is much to do.

Pictures, First, Vanilla pompona at my home, March 7. Second picture of violating the flower sepal to get access to the pollinia. Third picture squashing the pollinia against the stigma.

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