Vanilla Cultivation in Southern Florida (and beyond)
BY: Alan H. Chambers, Pamela Moon, Vovener de Verlands Edmond, and Elias Bassil
Scientific Name: Vanilla planifolia
Common names: Vanilla orchid
Distribution: Globally from latitudes 27°N to 27°S.
Vanilla extract is popular around the world as an ingredient in ice cream and various other desserts. The botanical source of vanilla extract is primarily the cured beans of Vanilla planifolia. The United States is the world’s largest importer of Vanilla beans, but domestic production is minimal. Southern Florida has a favorable growing environment for Vanilla cultivation. This document includes information relevant to growers interested in establishing a vanillery.
Vanilla seed capsules (commonly called beans) have long been appreciated for their distinct aroma and flavor. The major commercial species is V. planifolia with V. x tahitensis cultivated to a lesser extent. Madagascar leads the world in Vanilla production with Indonesia, Uganda, India, Comores, Mexico, and other countries significantly contributing to global production. The United States is the largest importer of Vanilla beans that are further processed into vanilla extract. Vanilla extract from Vanilla beans is now widely used in ice cream, baked goods, chocolate, cosmetics, and many other products.
V. planifolia spread from its native range in Mesoamerica across the Caribbean islands, into Europe, and globally starting in the late 1500s. Colder climates relied on greenhouses to maintain this tropical species. The vines were not production outside the native range in the absence of natural pollinators. The development of manual pollination methods in 1837 and 1841 by Charles Morren and Edmund Albius, respectively, unlocked the potential of this species for commercial production outside Mesoamerica. This timely development supported expanded production in the 1850s and 1860s in response to supply constraints from Mexico. Today, clonal descendants of the original plants are grown commercially in several countries.
Vanilla has been cultivated in the United States since before the early 1900s in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Florida. V. planifolia was introduced from Florida into Puerto Rico twice before 1909. A vanilla industry in Puerto Rico included a grower cooperative. The USDA station in Puerto Rico conducted horticultural, breeding, and bean curing research in support of the vanilla industry. The industry in Puerto Rico grew until the 1950s when it declined after World War II as industrialization superseded agriculture. Hawaii received Vanilla as part of trade routes before 1900. Hawaii still has Vanilla production, but mostly favors tourism business models. Additionally, Florida has four native Vanilla species (V. barbellata, V. dilloniana, V. phaeantha, and V. mexicana) with naturalized V. planifolia (Figure 1). Puerto Rico has seven species growing wild (V. barbellata, V. dilloniana, V. poitaei, V. pompona, V. claviculata, V. pompona, and V. planifolia). The native Florida Vanilla species are endangered and should not be collected from natural areas without proper authorization and permitting by regulatory authorities.