Review: Vanilla Orchids by Ken Cameron

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Vanilla Orchids: Natural History and Cultivation by Ken Cameron
ISBN-10: 0881929891
ISBN-13: 9780881929898
Published: Timber Press (OR), 06/01/2011
Pages: 212
Language: English

Many writers have particular phrases or literary misuses that drive them insane. Using the word “penultimate” to mean “even bigger than ultimate,” for instance, or the word “hater” used for any commentary on a person or subject that’s anything but utterly sycophantic. I have two. The most obvious, considering my background, is the description of any old, obsolete, or hidebound person or concept as a “dinosaur”. It’s not because I’m one of those humorless pedants who nerks “Well, you know, dinosaurs were dominant lifeforms on this planet for 130 million years,” but because it’s simplistic. Sadly, my suggestions on expanding our vocabularies by comparing anachronisms to arsinoitheres, anomalocarids, or arthrodires go over about as well as my recipes for venison sorbet.

The other? Describing any bland, blah, boring, or blase item as “vanilla”. Vanilla: the one flavor in Neopolitan ice cream packages that’s left for last, because it’s supposed to be “plain”. Artificial vanilla extract in cupcakes and bad supermarket bakery cookies. Nilla Wafers. George Romero’s second movie. All of which are revealed as blatant lies the moment you smell a properly cured vanilla bean for the first time and realize exactly how subtle yet complex real vanilla can be.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about the difference between vanilla and vanillin. Vanillin, while one of the main aromatic components in vanilla extract, is actually a compound found in many plants. To give an example of how common vanillin is, you may or may not remember the Ig Nobel Prize in chemistry given to Mayu Yamamoto for his method of extracting vanillin from cow dung. Vanillin production is also a first-year organic chemistry stunt, thus inadvertently contributing to the stigma against vanilla proper.

It’s bad enough that vanilla as a flavoring is now downplayed as mundane and wallflowerish. We forget how this spice became one of the most valuable and important spices on the planet. Never mind that chocolate as we know it today would be far too bitter without the proper and precise application of vanilla. Walk through any perfume counter in any department store after smelling a well-cured vanilla bean and note how most of the world’s most popular and successful perfumes depend upon vanilla’s long-lasting notes. The real stuff pops, but we’re so overwhelmed with cheap imitations that we barely notice unless we take the time.

And then there’s the orchid that produces this miracle. All commercial vanilla production comes from one species (Vanilla planiflora) and one natural hybrid (Vanilla x. tahitiensis). With the exception of salep, vanilla is the only commercially produced orchid food product, and about all that’s shared is a vague picture of an orchid on “French Vanilla” ice cream and the like. Most people are in shock when they discover that vanilla comes from an orchid, and even orchid enthusiasts have rarely seen members of the genus Vanilla. Most orchid books include Vanilla planiflora as an afterthought, mentioning vaguely that it produces vines a bit like Vanda orchids, and that “if they bloom, pollinate the blooms by hand to produce your own vanilla.”

A few months back, I saw a collection of rather ratty Vanilla orchids on sale in a Dallas garden center with that advice, and I scared several potential customers with my laughter. (Of course, I’d been laughing for a while, especially since this same garden center was advising Venus flytrap owners that they could remove minerals from Dallas tap water by letting it stand out overnight. If my smile makes people suddenly regret leaving Ripley and Parker to look for the ship’s cat, what does my laughter do, I wonder?) If you want to see vanilla orchids in action, go to Gunter’s Greenhouse in Richardson, Texas especially when the store hosts its spring open house and the orchids are in bloom. The back greenhouse has a big V. x tahitiensis on display, and the vines are as big around as a man’s leg. Very seriously, this beast is supported with repurposed cable racks previously used for lugging telephone cables, and I don’t think anything less could support the mass. To Gunter’s credit (and I say this as someone in perpetual awe and jealousy of the greenhouse’s crew of orchid geniuses), this one blooms prodigiously and extensively, but the idea of the average Park Cities gardening dilletante growing one, much less getting it to bloom, is just silly.

Again, at this point, this is where most orchid books and references stop. Outside of V. planiflora, all discussion on Vanilla orchids just stops. Nobody discusses the other species found in the Americas, or the wideranging ones from the Old World. Nobody discusses how the genus Vanilla contains some of the only vining orchids known. Nobody talks about relationships with other orchids, or how V. planiflora may have been domesticated in the first place, or the tremendous debt our culture owes this undeservedly obscure genus.

This is where Ken Cameron walks in. This isn’t a popular account of the history of vanilla, as in the case of Tim Ecott’s Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid. This is precisely what orchid enthusiasts and researchers need: a good, thorough view of the natural history of the entire genus, from a writer with an obvious enthusiasm for discovery but who also doesn’t go overboard. Discovering, for instance, that Vanilla is related to basal orchids suggests, as Professor Cameron notes herein, that the whole group may have been much more extensive in the distant past than today. Considering that orchids were almost definitely a component in Cretaceous flora, then this gives a whole new aspect to palaeontological art, as well as to anyone designing prehistoric gardens. I don’t think we’re going to see the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta adding Vanilla orchids to its Cretaceous Garden, but this news might influence someone else to give Vanilla and close cousins from New Caledonia a good shot.

I know this is getting tiring, but more kudos to Timber Press for offering this book. Considering how Vanilla information is neglected by both orchid references and food guides, the cliche “essential reading” actually applies in this case. The Czarina has been hinting at starting a Tahitian vanilla vine for a while, and finally I feel confident enough in knowing the plant’s needs that it might not be a complete pipe dream. Some day this year, I’m going to walk into Gunter’s, walk up to that monstrous V. x tahitiensis, and give them the magic request of “Give me three feet.” (Now, if you buy this book, you’ll know that growing most Vanilla from seed is extremely difficult, and that the vines usually reproduce themselves when they fall from trees and break apart. We’re talking orchids that might actually require machetes to keep under control. How could you go back to raising Cattleya orchids after learning that?)

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