Vanilla: Rare Edible Orchid

I received a vanilla cutting and a coconut palm as gifts. I have potted the vanilla in sphagnum moss in a plastic pot and tied it to a wooden post. I have placed the plant beside a wall facing north. As for the coconut palm, it is growing indoors. When, where, and how should I plant it outdoors?
>Cynthia Marks, Chatsworth
Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) is the only member of the orchid family whose flower is grown not only for ornament but as an edible product as well: the flavorful vanilla seed capsules or pods, confusingly referred to as vanilla beans even though they are not beans at all.
Vanilla pods assume the look of string beans as they ripen on the plant. These so-called vanilla beans, once they dry and blacken, are turned into vanilla spice or vanilla extract.
But do not pin your hopes on harvesting beans any time soon. Under the best of circumstances, it will take several years for a vanilla plant to flower and, even then, it must be pollinated by hand and the temperature, light, and humidity have to be just right for vanilla seed pods/beans to develop.
In our area, you would probably have to grow vanilla, a tropical species, in a climate-controlled greenhouse to get the longed-for beans.
If you just want to grow vanilla as a vining orchid, however, you can do so easily enough. However, the plant requires well-drained soil and your sphagnum moss may be too water-retentive. You should use a soil mix consisting of 50 percent potting soil and 50 percent washed sand, or a soil mix specifically designed for terrestrial orchids.
Unlike most orchids, which are epiphytes that dwell high in the crotches of tree limbs, vanilla is a vining orchid, so tying your plant to a wooden post makes sense. In its native Mexico, the vanilla orchid grows out of the ground even as its aerial roots imbibe water and minerals from the tropical atmosphere. It will eventually climb more than 100 feet.
You should probably keep your vanilla orchid indoors until the end of this month, since it could be killed if the temperature dips to 40 degrees, which could still happen at night during the next several weeks.
As for other cultural conditions, it should receive indirect light and would benefit from one of those mini-humidifiers designed specifically for growing tropical plants.
Given proper care, the vanilla orchid vine can grow up to 10 feet in one year, even in your living room. Once it starts to bloom, its fragrant white, cream, yellow, or green daffodil-shaped flowers, lasting only one day, are produced in profusion over a period of two months. As is the case with tropical plants in general, overall growth and flowering are favored by warm nighttime temperatures.
Rooted, foot-long vanilla vine pieces are available through Internet vendors for around $15.
As for your coconut palm, it will prove more difficult to grow. It demands heat and high humidity. It will require a humidifier to survive our dry Southern California weather and, if you can find it, tropical beach sand is its preferred potting soil.
It should also be placed outdoors, still in its pot, only when the danger of frosty nights has passed at the end of this month. Coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) will not survive if it is planted in the ground in this part of the world.
Tip of the week
New Zealand flax (Phormium species), the popular foliage plant with spear-shaped, clumping leaves that radiate up from the ground, is most attractive when contrasting types are planted together.
The other day I saw an alternate planting of six bronze and six green- and-white striped flax. If either flax had been planted by itself, the effect would not have been nearly as strong.
When planting flax, it is wise to carefully consider exposure. In the Valley, flax does much better with half-day than full-day sun. In full-day sun, foliage becomes scorched on the tips and its color fades. By the same token, if given too much shade, flax stops growing and becomes infested with mealybugs.
It may well be that flax is shown off to best advantage when planted in pots. A wonderful display of flax planted in square black containers may be found on the east steps of the mall at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and La Brea Avenue in West Hollywood.

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