Vanilla Pollination in India
India’s Human Hummingbird
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 it would be time for vanilla pollination in March and April. Out of the ten odd places I had enquired for volunteering, only Sujata Goel from The Rainforest Retreat responded promptly. Well, I just read 'vanilla' and screamed ‘yes’ over email. She had looked up the links in 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.
But, now about vanilla pollination. Vanilla is native to South America and the pollinators for the flower are hummingbirds. In India, somehow the conditions have not been conducive to hummingbirds 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 hummingbird and imagining that beautiful vanilla beans would break out from the flowers that I would pollinate.
Learning Vanilla Pollination
On the first day, Ravi, an amazing person and staff member at the Retreat, took me to the area where vanilla creepers grew. In the plantation, vanilla is grown along with cardamom and other trees. He handed me a toothpick and demonstrated how the pollination is done. 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. 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. This process takes maybe three seconds and one needs a steady hand for this. For the first two flowers I pollinated, 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 odorless. If they are successfully pollinated they wither on the stalk, or else they just drop to the ground.
Is Vanilla Worth the Wait?
It can take up to three years for a vanilla creeper to bear flowers. Once the flowers wither after successful pollination, they transform into vanilla pods. It is these green pods which are plucked and subject to a lengthy three month process before they become what we are familiar with in our kitchens.
So happy I got this opportunity to be a Nature fairy to the vanilla creepers.
Getting there: Either drive down 285 kms from Bangalore or take one of the KSRTC buses from Bangalore to Madikeri and then a half hour ride in an auto-rickshaw to the Retreat.
Places nearby: The Bylakuppe monastery and the Dubare Elephant camp are close by.
Written and photography by Priya Krishnan Das
Priya Krishnan Das is a self-taught artist based in Pune, India, and runs a creative enterprise called Purple Soul. Taking Warren Buffet’s quote ‘Do only what you are passionate about’ seriously, she quit her HR job and started Purple Soul in August 2012.
She is also an avid solo traveler and ever on the lookout for soaking up experiences with places, food and people. Her interests in Art and Travel fuel each other, in the sense that Travel inspires her Art and Art makes her seek experiences through Travel which touch her deeply. Another pet subject she follows seriously is Metaphysics.
Featured photo: Vanilla pompona, Orchidaceae, flower by Llez