Part of working with Tanzanian smallholder farmers is really understanding the core environmental aspect of what they are doing every day. In the case of vanilla, the whole story often isn’t told! And, by all means, it is actually incredibly interesting!
Originally, vanilla is native to Mexico, where one certain species of bees specializes in it’s pollination. This kind of bee, however, does not exist in Africa (or anywhere else other than Mexico for that matter). Since no other family of bees, nor butterfly, moth, fly, or hummingbird have been willing to pollinate the vanilla plant – it has been left up to human beings. Therefore, this hand pollination, flower, by flow, is a very tedious and labour-intensive crop.
Vanilla plants take 2.5 years to start flowering. Once the flower has blossomed, they are hand-pollinated with a tooth pick (from male to female, which are differentiated by one extra petal). Then, the flower shrivels up, the orchid falls and a green vanilla bean grows (in groups like bananas). The plant is a perennial and will continue to flower for approximately 13 years, but it is extremely easy to regenerate them because a whole plant will grow by planting just one vine in the ground, from an older plant.
The Jatrofa tree also plays a huge role in the growth of vanilla. The small tree is planted about 3 months before the vanilla as a support system, as the vanilla vine clings to it and they grow high together as friends, drinking off each other (just like us). The Jatrofa (called ‘Croton’ in English) also produces nuts which are used as a sustainable way to produce biofuel. There are even croton nut pickers who make a living collecting them.
All in all, a very interesting plant!