Attention orchid fans: our vanilla orchid is blooming in the Tropical Greenhouse at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It’s a rare occurrence in the wild—and in a greenhouse. Wade Wheatley, assistant horticulturist, seized the moment to hand-pollinate the flower.
Why hand pollinate? In hopes of producing a vanilla bean. Yes, the fruit of a vanilla orchid is used to make pure vanilla extract, which flavors many foods we enjoy.
Vanilla vines typically begin to flower at five years or older. Flowers are produced in clusters, with one flower opening each day in the morning. Stop by the Tropical Greenhouse soon to see what’s in bloom.
Vanilla cookies, vanilla perfume, and everything vanilla swept through my nostrils at a scented display at last year’s Orchid Show. The sweet smell was a great way to show many visitors that vanilla comes from the fruits of the vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia).
As a docent at last year’s show, I was eager to show off the Garden’s vanilla plant (located in the Tropical Greenhouse next to the banana trees), because I knew that may visitors didn’t know that they had an orchid in their spice cabinet.
Currently, I am in the second year of my research of the vanilla orchid. Vanilla is an exciting plant to study because it grows as a vine with two different types of roots. These roots help vanilla grow as a vine (more precisely a hemiepiphyte) because terrestrial roots anchor it within the soil, and epiphytic roots anchor it to tree trunks. My last post, Vanilla inhabitants: The search for associated bacteria and fungi, showcased my ongoing experiment in Mexico. This included collecting roots from four different Mexican farms that had very different practices for how they grew the orchid. We know that vanilla orchids use their epiphytic roots for support, but what other functions do they perform? Do they also form symbiotic relationships with fungal partners to obtain nutrients and water, like terrestrial roots?
Monocultures—crops with genetically identical heritage—are common in vanilla cultivation.
The fungal partners of orchids, known as mycorrhizal fungi, help an orchid start its life by providing needed nutrients for its seeds to germinate. No orchids in the wild can germinate without one or more mycorrhizal fungi. As a scientist, my goal is to study the interactions that the vanilla orchid has with these fungi as they mature. This is important because most vanilla farms are monocultures—it is easier to obtain clones from cuttings of vanilla than to germinate them from seeds. This, however, creates serious problems, because farms that have low genetic diversity in their vanilla orchids can lose their entire crop if a disease (such as root rot caused by Fusarium) appears.
Prior reports based on classic techniques have documented two or three species of mycorrhizal fungi within vanilla roots. In addition to these mycorrhizal fungi, there are also fungal pathogens (fungi that cause disease) and fungal endophytes (fungi that seem to have a mutualistic relationship with the host) that colonize a vanilla’s root.
To further investigate the situation, I ran an experiment using the latest DNA technology—Next Generation Sequencing (NGS)—to document the communities of fungi within terrestrial and epiphytic vanilla roots.
As fungal endophytes take up nutrients from their host, the mycotoxins they produce reduce herbivory and susceptibility to pathogens.
I documented 142 species of fungi associated with vanilla roots from the four Mexican farms, with an average of nine fungi colonizing a single vanilla root at one time. Of these 142 species, 20 are likely mycorrhizal. I find that fascinating, because these mycorrhizal fungi were found within both root types and across all farms. It was also surprising to know that epiphytic roots have a similar diversity of mycorrhizal fungi as terrestrial roots even though the epiphytic roots were green and could photosynthesize and have been considered primarily as support structures.
My study also documented a high number of previously unreported species of fungal pathogens and fungal endophytes colonized the roots of vanilla plants. This means that if plants are unhealthy, fungal pathogens likely can quickly take over, because they are already present within the roots. Overall, vanilla roots have good and bad partners just like we do, but contain more beneficial fungi (fungal endophytes and mycorrhizal fungi) than previously believed. These beneficial fungi not only supply the plant with water and nutrients, but also help control fungal pathogens. Thus, they are essential for plant health.
This research is funded with support from Mexican collaborators as part of the SAGARPA-CONACYT-SNITT 2012-04-190442 Mexican Vanilla Project.
Learn more about the orchids in your kitchen cabinet with our Vanilla Infographic; read up on another edible orchid in A Sip of Salep. Stay tuned for more orchid research projects, amazing orchid displays, and fun facts on our blog.
Hear “vanilla” and what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Ice cream, right?
While we were researching vanilla for our annual Orchid Show, we kept discovering new scoops on vanilla ice cream.
First we learned that one-third of all the ice cream that Americans eat is vanilla.
Next, we learned about vanilla beans’ different flavors—at a tour of the Nielsen-Massey Vanillas facility in nearby Waukegan. (Who knew that vanilla extract was produced right here in Chicago?)
And then we came across Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream at the Library of Congress—such a beautiful document that we included a copy of it in the Orchid Show. (The knowledgeable staff at the Library of Congress pointed out that there’s a second recipe on the back of Thomas Jefferson’s vanilla ice cream notes—for the Savoy cookies to accompany it.)
All those moments dovetailed nicely when our own orchid expert, Pati Vitt, Ph.D., got inspired to make her own homemade vanilla ice cream. Naturally, as a scientist, she set herself a bigger challenge: to tackle Jefferson’s thorough (albeit old-fashioned) recipe, using three different types of vanilla beans kindly provided by Nielsen-Massey.
We had to document Dr. Vitt’s ice cream-making adventure: see how she interpreted Jefferson’s recipe—and what three guest chefs/tasters had to say about the flavor—in our video (view on YouTube).
Thomas Jefferson’s Ice Cream
(Jefferson’s lovely script can be hard to decipher, so here’s the recipe’s text in full.)
2 bottles of good cream
6 yolks of eggs
½ pound sugar
mix the yolks & sugar
put the cream on a fire in a casserole, first putting in a stick of vanilla.
when near boiling take it off & pour it gently into the mixture of eggs & sugar.
stir it well.
put it on the fire again stirring it thoroughly with a spoon to prevent it’s [sic] sticking to the casserole.
when near boiling take it off and strain it thro’ a towel.
put it in the sabottiere*
then set it in ice an hour before it is to be served. put into the ice a handful of salt.
put salt on the coverlid of the Sabottiere & cover the whole with ice.
leave it still half a quarter of an hour.
then turn the Sabottiere in the ice 10 minutes
open it to loosen with a spatula the ice from the inner sides of the Sabottiere.
shut it & replace it in the ice
open it from time to time to detach the ice from the sides
when well taken (prise) stir it well with the Spatula.
put it in moulds, justling it well down on the knee.
then put the mould into the same bucket of ice.
leave it there to the moment of serving it.
to withdraw it, immerse the mould in warm water, turning it well till it will come out & turn it into a plate.
*Footnote from the Library of Congress: A “sabottiere” is an ice cream mold (“sorbetière” in modern French).
You can use the recipe without modification, just cooling the mixture in an ice bath and then in the refrigerator overnight.
Freeze according to your ice cream maker’s instructions.
One tablespoon of vanilla extract may substitute for the vanilla bean.
The recipe makes about 4 pints (2 quarts, or one ½ gallon).
Ice cream wasn’t the only vanilla treat on Vitt’s mind: she also canned a batch of vanilla spice apple butter (we shared it in a meeting—delicious!) and made her own vanilla sugar. Vitt agreed to share her recipe—and presented it all so charmingly, with handcrafted labels, trims, and tags, that we had to include a photo, too.
Vanilla Spice Apple Butter
Wash, core, and slice 8 to 12 apples (Granny Smiths, or a mix of varieties) to fill a 6-quart crockpot to about 1½ inches from the top; add ½ cup of apple cider. Cook until completely soft—about the consistency of apple sauce.
Using a food processor, sieve, or Foley mill, puree the sauce. Put the mixture back into the crockpot, along with half of a fresh vanilla bean. Cook several hours on the “low” setting of your crockpot until the extra liquid cooks off and the mixture begins to thicken. (Place the lid of your crockpot slightly off kilter to allow steam to escape. This will speed up the evaporation and thickening of the mixture.)
After the apple butter begins to thicken, add ½ cup sugar and the juice of one lemon. Cook an additional 30 minutes. Stir in cinnamon to taste, plus a pinch each of ground cardamom and cloves.
Pour into hot, sterilized jars and place in a canning bath according to your canner’s recommendations for applesauce—usually about 10 minutes.
For more ideas—sweet and savory—for cooking with vanilla, check out our February issue of the Smart Gardener.
We gathered around a table at the Garden View Café the other day to taste something that only one of us had ever tasted before: powdered orchid roots.
A traditional winter drink in the cafés and restaurants of Turkey, salep is made from the tuberous roots of orchids—specifically, terrestrial orchids in the genus Orchis. Dried and powdered, the resulting flour is combined in a drink mix with other ingredients, much as hot chocolate or chai spices would be: sugar, cornstarch, powdered milk, cinnamon, and vanillin (the main flavor component in vanilla) are added.
The instructions are hot-chocolate simple, too: mix 1½ tablespoons of powdered salep into 6 ounces of steamed or boiling milk. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Serve in small cups.
Our lesson in salep came from the one person who had not only tasted salep before but had grown up drinking it—horticulturist Ayse Pogue, who hails from Istanbul.
Salep is not readily available in America; it arrived here courtesy of Ayse’s mother, Figen Ormancioglu, who kindly brought it with her on a recent visit. (The family surname translates as “son of the forester”—Ayse’s love of botany is in her blood.)
What does salep taste like? “Chai,” “junipers,” and “I’ll have another glass,” were three answers; the flavor is hard for American taste buds to define. Sweet and savory and spicy all at once, there’s a note of bark or tree in it—Ayse explains that gum arabic, made from the sap of the acacia tree, is also an ingredient, one more familiar to eastern palates than western.
And what is served with salep? “Good conversation,” Ayse says, as is true of all café drink orders. Heading to Istanbul? You’ll spend $4 to $5 on a cup of salep in a city café.
We’ve been talking a lot about edible orchids recently, especially with vanilla as a prominent part of this year’s Orchid Show. While vanilla is, by far, the most well-known food produced from orchids (it’s the bean-like fruit of the vining orchid Vanilla planifolia), other orchids are eaten in different ways around the world.
Chikanda is a Zambian food made from pounded orchid tubers and thickened to the consistency of jelly, then served in slices.
Olatshe is a daily dish in Bhutan, where Cymbidium orchids are cooked with spices and cheese.
Some Dendrobium flowers are edible, and the bamboo-like canes are ingredients in Asian stir-fries and sauces.
Turkish ice cream, or dondurma, is also made from salep; some dondurma is so chewy and elastic that it can be sliced and eaten with a knife and fork.
The Victorians had it, and so do we, right here at the Lenhardt Library! A new rare book library exhibition has just opened as part of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s 2015 Orchid Show: Orchidelirium: Illustrated Orchidaceae.
No matter what you call it, the Victorians were mad for the sensational new plants arriving in England from every exotic location on Earth. The race was on, as botanical explorations took orchid collectors from one end of the globe to another in search of the most beautiful, rare, vibrantly colored, sensuously shaped orchids to be found. Orchid fever flared again and again, from the first time the Victorians saw a Cattleya labiata from South America (it bloomed after arriving as packing material in 1818), to the orchid display of the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, designed by gardener, architect, and member of Parliament Sir Joseph Paxton (1803–65).
And if that wasn’t enough, books, articles, and botanical journals were also devoted to the orchid.
No photography? No Internet? No matter! Botanical illustrators captured orchids in all their thought-provoking beauty, one engraving and lithograph at a time. These trained illustrators caught the clinical and technical aspects of the plants with sheer precision. After Cattleya labiata, the next Victorian orchid-on-demand was Oncidium papilio, the butterfly orchid, which is one of the most dazzling illustrations in Orchidelirium: Illustrated Orchidaceae.
This year we celebrate Vanilla planifolia, an edible orchid that produces the second most expensive spice in the world, next to saffron. An entire case is devoted to the vanilla orchid—look for Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker’s Curtis’s Botanical Magazine: Comprising the Plants of the Royal Gardens of Kew, London: L. Reeve & Co., 1891.
Chocolate and vanilla lovers: don’t miss the rare plate from Zippel and Bollmann’s Ausländische Culturpflanzen in Bunten Wand-Tafeln (Foreign Cultivated Plants in Colored Wall Panels with Explanatory Text) that was used as a tool for teaching plant anatomy. Like many of our rare orchid books and journals, this fragile plate was in much need of conservation. It was conserved through a grant by the National Endowment for Humanities; the digitized plate can be accessed online at the Illinois Digitized Archives.