What is Vanilla and Why is it so Expensive?


Vanilla is among the most popular flavors out there, always present when picking an ice cream, drink, and even in creams and lotions. However, many of us might not know where this delicious flavor comes from and why it can be expensive when sold in its raw form. While you might not run the risk of seeing your favorite flavor disappear any time soon, it is worth knowing what its value is and why it can be expensive.

Vanilla bean is the fruit of Vanilla planifolia, a variety of orchids that grow in tropical climates, especially in the northern region of Madagascar. Natural vanilla extract is the primary byproduct of vanilla beans which are extremely hard to harvest and makes their price fluctuate. 

Vanilla beans are at the core of the flavor we love so much, so read on to learn all about them.

What is a Vanilla Bean?

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Vanilla bean is the fruit produced by vanilla orchids. While there are over 110 varieties of vanilla orchids, 99 percent of commercial vanilla is derived from the fruit of Vanilla planifolia, an orchid variety that originates from Mexico.

While other types, such as Vanilla Tahitensis from Tahiti, are available, Vanilla planifolia is the most sought-after genus, mostly because the fruit of Vanilla planifolia boasts a much more intense flavor.

The value of vanilla beans does not only reside in the flavor of this fruit, but also its cultivation process. This variety of orchids is incredibly challenging to cultivate, and it is vulnerable and delicate. Additionally, because the orchid flowers need to be hand-pollinated, the propagation process, or dispersal of seeds, can be extremely arduous.

When the orchid’s fruits do appear, the cultivator will need to wait up to six months for them to ripen. After they have been harvested, the process of getting them ready for the market might take just as long.

Because of these difficulties, vanilla beans can be costly and hard to find.

Is Vanilla Bean the Same as Vanilla?

Vanilla beans are where the vanilla extract comes from. However, vanilla usually refers to the extract or liquid derived from the bean of the Vanilla planifolia orchid plant. Vanilla extract and vanilla flavor can also be made through a synthetic process, producing a liquid, which is referred to as Vanillin.

Naturally, vanilla beans are rarer and more valuable than manufactured Vanillin, mostly because of the cultivation and harvesting process.

Where Does Vanilla Bean Come From?

Vanilla planifolia, the orchid variety that produces almost 100 percent of all vanilla beans on the market, is believed to have been derived from Mexico. According to a local belief, the plant was initially cultivated in the 15th century by the Totonac people who lived on Mexico’s east coast during the Aztec Empire.

The vanilla bean made its first appearance in Europe in the 1520s, following the arrival of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, who is considered to be the first person to import the bean.

Today, most vanilla beans on the market (up to 80 percent) come from a region in northern Madagascar, while other species of vanilla come from areas of Tahiti. Because of the market’s potential, other areas such as Indonesia have started to cultivate Vanilla planifolia.

Photo by Javarman

Generally, the plant thrives in tropical climates. While some European nations such as the Netherlands have also started to cultivate vanilla beans, they generally use greenhouses to grow the plants.

While the plant is cultivated in various regions of the world today, the bean’s flavor profile that cultivators can harvest from these plants will vary depending on the area where the crop is started. Indeed, just like in the case of wine, the vanilla bean’s flavor profile depends on several aspects, including soil, climate, and season.

How Long Does Vanilla Take to Grow?

As mentioned above, vanilla beans are the fruits of an orchid plant. Orchidaceae is an extensive family of flowering plants. Most of the plants belonging to the orchid family are colorful, flowering, and characterized by a strong scent.

There are over 110 varieties of vanilla orchids. However, the major ones that are produced commercially on a large scale include:

  • Vanilla planifolia
  • Vanilla tahitiensis
  • Vanilla pompona

Each of them has different taste and scent profiles.

The amount of time vanilla orchid plants take to grow is one factor that causes them to be rare and expensive. Orchid plants can take between three and five years to develop from mature cuttings to flowering plants.

Once the plant is mature and has started to flower, the cultivator will need to hand-pollinate it. This process can only happen in a short window of time during the late morning, and the delicate operation is typically with the help of a chopstick.

During this process, the pollen is removed from one of the vanilla plant’s flowers’ stamen and placed on another flower’s stigma. Green pods will start to be visible within one week after the pollination process.

The pod will grow and elongate within nine to ten months, becoming as long as six inches (15 cms).

How Tall do Vanilla Vines Grow?

Vanilla vines, just like other orchids, can grow for years, reaching impressive heights. Generally, a vanilla vine can grow between 8 to 10 feet tall (2.4 to 3 meters). Some of the tallest vanilla plants can reach impressive heights, such as 49 feet (15 meters)!

These estimations do depend on several factors. First, each type of vanilla vine will have different specifications. Additionally, the climate in which it is grown and the soil’s quality and nutrients it receives can make a difference in how flourishing the plant will be.

Cultivators should also keep in mind that when a vanilla plant is grown indoors or in a container, it will likely remain much shorter. The average height of vanilla plants grown indoors in containers is between 3 and 5 feet (1 and 1.5 meters).

Can You Grow Vanilla at Home or Indoors?

Photo by Monikamonia

It is possible to grow vanilla vines indoors. However, this project is more appropriate for expert gardeners who already have experience with keeping tropical plants. Additionally, vanilla orchids are incredibly demanding and vulnerable.

Vanilla vines are known to need perfectly controlled conditions and growing environments and, since they need to be pollinated by hand, you should also have experience with this process.

To increase the chances of keeping your vanilla vine healthy and alive, it is helpful to have:

  • Previous experience with orchids
  • A greenhouse
  • Adequate indoor conditions
  • Experience with hand pollination
  • Experience with tropical plants
  • Space for a growing plant
  • Supports for your plant to climb

These are all bonus requirements on top of the standard growing skills and tools you would typically need to tend a garden. Some ither requirements to keep in mind if you decide to take on the challenge of growing vanilla bean plants at home include:

  • Light requirements: Generally, vanilla vines will thrive in a location that offers them long periods of indirect light. While they don’t tolerate direct sun for prolonged periods, they are happy to receive some morning sun for short periods.
  • Soil requirements: Picking the right soil for your plant is crucial. You should start your vanilla plant with highly nutritious soil, preferably a combination of bark and potting mix. This particular composition will make the soil denser but allow for proper drainage, which is perfect for looking after a young vanilla plant. Once the plant has developed epiphytic roots—or aerial roots—you won’t need to care for the soil as much.
  • Water requirements: Watering a vanilla vine is something different from watering other house plants. As seen above, vanilla plants will develop aerial roots. Therefore, you will need to ensure that the soil has enough moisture and increase the humidity in the air surrounding the plant, as the aerial roots will draw in water from the air as well as from the soil.

Is Vanilla Bean a Fruit or Vegetable?

A vanilla bean is considered to be a fruit, and is the only edible fruit produced by all the plants belonging to the orchid family. However, this fruit is not ready to be eaten when it first appears, as it needs to mature up to the point that it is almost rotting. At this point, it is picked and processed for another three months. It is only after this period, that the vanilla pods can be used to extract the vanilla flavor they contain.

What Type of Climate is Best to Grow Vanilla?

In their natural environment, vanilla beans and vines grow in tropical and subtropical areas. In the U.S., vanilla will grow best in USDA Hardiness Zones 11 and 12. This plant’s native region is not too far away from these zones, as it was first cultivated in Mexico and Central America.

Source: USDA Hardiness Zones

While cultivated in certain zones in Mexico, the plant has then been developed in other areas such as Madagascar, which has become the primary producer of this plant on a global scale. Because of the plant’s incredible success, some crops can be found across Tahiti and Indonesia.

As seen above, the plant can also be grown indoors by expert cultivators. However, when doing so, re-creating conditions similar to the ones of a tropical climate is crucial. Besides providing the plant with the right light, soil, and water needs, it is also worth looking into the humidity and temperature levels required.

The ideal temperatures for your vanilla plant are:

  • Between 80 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit (26 and 35 degrees Celsius) during the day
  • Between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit (15 and 21 degrees Celsius) at nighttime

It is essential to keep in mind that vanilla vines will not tolerate or survive frost. So, if you live in a climate that is not tropical and you still wish to grow these plants, then you should consider growing them inside your home or in a greenhouse.

You should aim for a humidity level of 80 percent, to mimic tropical climates. However, the air needs to circulate regularly to prevent root rot and other fungal diseases, so you might consider adding a fan to help.   

If you are struggling to keep humidity levels as high as 80 percent, you might consider grouping some of the plants or adding a humidity tray under the plants. We also have a great post about things to consider when building or getting a greenhouse, which might be helpful to review.

What Does Vanilla Bean Taste Like?

If you have ever tasted vanilla ice cream, then you understand what vanilla extract tastes like. Depending on the type of ice cream you purchased, this might have been created with the synthetic vanilla extract—or Vanillin—or with the extract derived from beans.

If you have tasted the latter, then you can start imagining the flavor of vanilla beans. These fruits have a much more intense vanilla flavor and scent than the one you are used to. This potent aroma is often referred to as creamy, sweet, and a little smoky. If you have yet to try vanilla ice cream made from natural vanilla beans, we highly recommend you remedy that ASAP – you cannot say you have tried vanilla ice cream until you have done this!

Vanilla that comes from synthetic sources generally has a milder and slightly different flavor than vanilla that is derived from vanilla plants. Here, you can expect each variety to create a unique flavor profile. For example, while Mexican vanilla is dark, bold, and very smoky, Madagascar vanilla is creamier and warmer.

What is Vanilla Bean Used For?

Vanilla beans are mainly used to create their byproduct, vanilla extract, which is a common ingredient for recipes, baked goods, or even creams and lotions.

As mentioned above, the vanilla extract that comes from beans is the natural version, and it is often much rarer and more expensive. Synthetic extracts such as Vanillin exist, and they are appreciated for their accessibility and affordability.

In some recipes, the whole bean or seeds might be used, too. These are not as common as the extract because of their prohibitive price range.

Vanilla beans might be used to infuse and add vanilla flavor to a range of beverages. These include liquors, drinks, sugars, and syrups.

How is Vanilla Extract Made?

Vanilla extract is the principal byproduct of vanilla beans which is made by macerating or percolating vanilla beans chopped in a mixture of alcohol and water. The mixture is placed into large metal containers and left for extended periods of time.

Photo by The Spicy Trio

During this time, the temperature is kept low so that the minimal amount of nutrients is lost. Generally, the whole process can be completed in around 48 hours, after which the liquid is moved in holding tanks until ready to be bottled.

5 Reasons Why Natural Vanilla Beans So Expensive

If you have been looking to buy vanilla beans, you will have noticed that they can be pretty expensive. Their price has been fluctuating over the years, ranging from just a few dollars per pound to about $300 per pound in 2017. The price has dropped a little since 2017, and in 2019, the vanilla beans were worth around $250 per pound.

Below are a few reasons why vanilla beans are expensive, which you can also learn about in this video.

Concentrated Production in Few Parts of the World

As seen above, over 80 percent of all vanilla beans in circulation today come from a small region in Sava, the northeast part of Madagascar. Vanilla is still the country’s primary export crop, and Madagascar is trying to increase global demand.

Due to this ingredient’s popularity, other countries have started to cultivate vanilla, including Uganda, Tahiti, and Indonesia. However, so far, vanilla coming from Madagascar is the most popular type.

Hard to Grow and a Very Vulnerable Plant

As seen above, growing a vanilla plant indoors can be challenging. However, growing large crops in the wild can be just as problematic.

Vanilla plants might take up to five years to grow. Once they have reached maturity, they will produce one flower, which will only last one day. Because the flower will bloom for just a few hours, it needs to be hand-pollinated within 12 hours of blooming—otherwise, they won’t produce beans.

Even if the plants are hand-pollinated successfully, the process of getting the beans ready for the market is labor-intensive and can last for months.

Market Volatility

The demand for vanilla beans, as well as their price, change depending on the market’s demand. While in the 1980s, the cheaper synthetic vanilla extract was more popular; today’s modern trends are all about natural eating, which has caused the demand for natural vanilla beans to rise again.

Farmers Have to Deal with Unpredictable Seasons

The majority of productive vanilla crops can be found in a small geographical region, which is among the worst-hit by cyclones and tropical storms. At the same time, vanilla plants are incredibly vulnerable and delicate. These factors result in a single hurricane being able to wipe out a whole year’s worth of crop, which will not grow back for at least another three to five years.

Farmers Have to Deal with Thieves

One of the reasons why it is so expensive is because farmers have to deal with thieves. Even when cultivating vanilla goes as planned, and the green vanilla pods have started to sprout, cultivators have to deal with thieves who are likely to steal the pods.

Closing Thoughts

Vanilla plants are among the most striking orchids but growing them indoors should be a project for expert cultivators. Vanilla beans, the vanilla planifolia plant’s fruit, are among the most flavorful and rare. For the plant to produce fruit, perfectly controlled growing conditions and hand-pollination are necessary.

Because of the plant’s vulnerability, fluctuation in price, and market volatility, vanilla beans’ value changes constantly. Additionally, over 80 percent of the total amount of vanilla on the market today comes from small crops in northern Madagascar, making the beans even more valuable.

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