Vanilla

by Bryan Jadynlee Cho | Mar 5, 2024 | 0 comments

Month of March Writing Third Place Winner

March for my family means vanilla! We live on the edge of a tropical rainforest in southern Belize, which is home to several species of vanilla. The most common type we have is the pompona.

The vanilla plant is in the orchid family. It is a thick green vine that has a thick leaf every 3-5 inches (7.5-12.5 cm). It climbs on trees and sends long light-green air roots to the ground to take in minerals and moisture from the soil.

Dry season begins in January or February, stressing the plant and causing it to produce clusters of flowers. These clusters peak during March. Normally there are between five and twenty flowers on a cluster, but once we saw a cluster with only two and another time a cluster with twenty-seven! Usually one flower opens each day, while sometimes two open at a time and other times it skips a day.

The flowers are beautiful! They are white with a soft yellow hue and faint strips of green inside the labellum. They have five long petals that curve outward. These fragile flowers open at dawn and close around noon.

From the time you see the little green bud that will become a cluster, pushing out from above one of the leaves, until the first flower is ready to be pollinated is a period of two to three weeks. A genus of bees that seems to be going extinct pollinates the flowers occasionally; but if you want to ensure your future beans, you have to hand-pollinate them. This year my Dad taught me how to pollinate them.

To pollinate a flower, I push back the labellum to expose the upper part of the column. I find the flap (membrane) that is covering the pocket on the stigma where the pollen should go. I lift the flap with my toothpick as high as it can go; then I push the anther, containing the pollen, down into the hollow. I press it gently with my thumb to make sure the pollen doesn’t fall out.

If the pollination has been done well, the flower will droop and turn brown, and the stem of the flower (that becomes the bean) will thicken, lengthen, and turn downward. If it has not been pollinated, the flower will fall off on the morrow, and the stem will stay pointed upward.

The other reason March is vanilla month is because the warm weather finishes ripening the beans from the previous year. Then we process them by killing them in 130°-150° F water for approximately two minutes. Next we roll them in flannel and let them sweat for five to seven days, before placing them in the sun to dry. By this time they have a wonderfully sweet aroma. It takes at least two months of drying until they are ready to be placed in the dark for another two months. Then they are ready for the final six-month stage of extracting the flavor from the beans by placing them in vodka.

So March for us means enjoying the beauty of the vanilla flowers, the fun of pollinating those flowers, and the excitement of smelling the beans as they dry.

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