Wednesday 16 April 2014

My Tryst with Pollinating Vanilla Flowers.

Last year in April, I was scouting for places to volunteer for coffee (berry) picking, but I was told that coffee harvesting ends by February and that in would be time for vanilla pollination in March and April. Well, I just read vanilla and screamed 'yes' over email. Out of the 10 odd places I had enquired for volunteering, only Sujata Goel from The Rainforest Retreat responded promptly. She had looked up the links on my signature in the email and asked me if I could do some art work in any of the cottages and that was like the icing on the cake for me :-) 
Me pollinating a vanilla flower
But now about vanilla pollination. Vanilla is native to South America and the pollinators for the flower are humming birds. In India, somehow the conditions have not been conducive to humming birds and plantation owners have not been successful in rearing them. So humans have to hand pollinate the flowers. I was really excited and looking forward to playing the role of the humming bird and imagining that beautiful vanilla beans would break out from the flowers that I would pollinate. 
Vanilla flower before it is pollinated

The glorious vanilla creeper
On the first day, Ravi, an amazing soul and staff, at the Retreat took me to the area where vanilla creepers grew. He handed me a toothpick and demonstrated how it is done. So, to explain it simply, there is a little hood like thing inside the vanilla flower which needs to be ripped with the toothpick, the flap of which needs to be moved upward dexterously with one's thumb, and there's a distinguishable stalk called the anther which needs to be pushed against the stigma (inside of the hood) with the toothpick and then pressed down again with one's thumb. All this gets over in maybe 3 seconds and one needs a steady hand for this. For the first 2 flowers my hands were shaky because the flowers are so fragile and I had to be really sure what I was poking the toothpick into. 

Every morning I would spend around an hour looking for flowers that have bloomed and must be pollinated. The flowers last only for a day and must be pollinated in that window, preferably before noon. They also do not smell anything like vanilla. They are rather odourless. If they are successfully pollinated they wither on the stalk, or else they just drop to the ground. 

Vanilla beans.
It can take upto 3 years for a vanilla creeper to bear flowers. Once the flowers wither after successful pollination, it transforms into a vanilla pod. It is these green pods which are plucked and subject to a lengthy 3 month process before it becomes what we are familiar with in our kitchens. 

So happy I got this opportunity to be a Nature fairy to the vanilla creepers..:-) 

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