Wednesday, 10 June 2009
A little pollination in the morning
Our vanilla is flowering for the first time. The plants - all 60 of them, are three years old and have enough maturity for their first blossoms. Vanilla is an orchid, the only one with an edible fruit. They are epiphetic and ours grow on madera negra, (a leguminous small tree used for living fence posts here) and we have them fairly close to the house in the upper farm, in a clearing in the forest. It's a beautiful space, but boy does it get hot and steamy in there.
The flowers are only open for a few hours each day and we hand pollinate each morning. Vanilla evolved together with the Melipona bee who specialised in the flowers and became adapted to the form and function of the blossom. It's a small stingless bee, small enough to enter the flower and lift the flap which separates the male and female parts. While the Melipona bee does exist in Costa Rica, we haven't seen any at the flowers and so we do as every vanilla farm does: we copy the bee.
Gently armed with a toothpick we open the flower a little and then, ever so slightly, slide under the flap and lift up to expose the female part. The male part of the flower lifts as well and then, while holding the toothpick in place, we lightly push the male part down against the female, hold hold for a second or so. Then it's on to the next bloom. Each plant produces between 6 to 8 flowers each day and it can take a while to pollinate them all.
However not all the plants are flowering, and as the season is coming to a close, I doubt that they will this year. This is better for us as vanilla is a new experience and it be easier for us to learn - and to make our mistakes - with only a few blossoms and pods.
Just as a pumpkin or squash flower, when the female 'takes' the flower dries but remains attached to the stalk for 2 or 3 days before it drops. Those that don't take fall off by the following day. So we know how many have taken. It looks like about half have been pollinated. Again this is better, too many pods on one plant will stress it and develop with less vigour. We pollinate everything though for the practise - it's rather tricky and one has to be ever so gentle or the male part will simply rip off.
The pods will be ready for harvest come October - and then the real work begins!