Vanilla Bean Sex in Tonga
14 November 2012 | Opua, New Zealand
Back in our previous life, the only exposer we had to vanilla flavor was the extract in a bottle variety that was used mainly for baked goods. In Polynesia, vanilla plantations are popular tourist attractions, which we didn't visit, but that is when we learned how expensive a single vanilla bean is. We have also come to learn why they cost so much. Also, any vanilla ice cream in Polynesia and Tonga is so superb, a deliciously rich vanilla flavor rather than the watered down milk vanilla flavor found in the states.
Vanilla beans look very much like a coffee bean and grow on a vine. Each vine has from 1 flower up to several flowers spaced about 3 feet apart from each other. Each flower, after pollination, produces only a single bean. Thus the production is limited to number of flowers that get pollinated. A typical flower plant requiring pollination is left to nature aka, let the bees pollinate for the farmer. In Tonga and Polynesia there is no bee that does this, so each flower must be pollinated by hand. After pollination, the bean grows and then 1 by 1 gets harvested and then put through an elaborate drying process where each bean is turned, again 1 at a time, to dry out.
One night, while at Big Mamas on Pangaimotu Island, we were discussing this with Big Mama and she told us that she has 5000 plants on the island that they maintain for an average annual yield of 3-5 kilos of beans. We expressed an interest in learning the pollinating process and she invited us to the next day's hike into the bush to find and pollinate some vanilla flowers. The flower only opens at dawn for about four hours, so an early hike was called for the next day.
The tools are simple:
• a "spider stick" to remove webs that always seem to be at face level in the jungle
• a toothpick for the sexing/pollinating
• lots of bug spray repellant
At 8am the next day, we head off with Big Mama into the jungle to locate the plants. She has them growing wild in about four locations so finding them is pretty easy. Then she showed us each how to do it. First you grab the "organ" between two fingers and slide the toothpick under the head. Then squeeze the organ onto the toothpick and poof, you have just pollinated one flower. A good worker can do this around 50-70 times an hour, with the biggest challenge being locating and reaching the flower.
We're hoping to add some new pictures in our Tonga gallery will help show some of the vanilla bean sex.