Community Outreach, Land Conservation and Forest Restoration, Sustainable agriculture

Into the wild: Revealing the secrets of wild vanilla

Blogpost by Charlotte Watteyn, doctoral researcher at KU Leuven (Belgium) and the University of Costa Rica, collaborating with Osa Conservation

If you think about vanilla, you immediately start to imagine delicious ice creams, cakes and other yummy sweets. But where does this vanilla come from? Well, it is extracted from the fruits (beans or pods) of orchid vines, producing an intense aroma resulting from a complex of molecules. These orchids belong to the genus Vanilla (Orchidaceae), a diverse group of climbing hemi-epiphytes growing around trees with their aerial roots. The genus contains over 100 species and is pantropic, meaning that they are present all around the tropics. However, the aromatic vanilla species, the ones that produce the lovely smelling pods, are native to the Neotropics.

Overview of the 5 different vanilla species growing in our study region ACOSA (Area de Conservacion Osa). Photo: Adam Karremans

Nevertheless, when you buy vanilla and take a further look at the country of origin, you will probably read “Madagascar.” But Madagascar does not fall within vanilla’s native growing regions, so only the introduced species that was brought over from Mexico a long time ago, Vanilla planifolia, is cultivated in Madgascar. Vanilla cultivators in Madagascar have to pollinate flowers by hand, because natural pollinators are absent, and use intensive production systems. Furthermore, the market chain involves several intermediaries that keep prices artificially high by holding back large quantities, explaining the currently high market prices. As a result, we realized there is a need for innovation in vanilla cultivation.

We want to determine the possibility of contributing to a more sustainable vanilla provision through a joint land sparing and land sharing approach (SPASHA), ensuring the conservation of wild vanilla populations while cultivating the economically interesting ones in a sustainable agroforestry system. There are several wild vanilla species, known as crop wild relatives (CWR), growing in the lowland tropical rainforests of the Neotropics, with presence of pods (that smell very nice!), indicating natural pollination. However, there is very little known about the distribution, biology and ecology of both the orchids and their pollinators. We are interested in determining the potential to cultivate wild vanilla and therefore create an alternative income source for local communities.

Left: The beautiful flower of Vanilla trigonocarpa. Middle: Fruits (green beans) of Vanilla hartii, the result from natural pollination, a mysterious process that we will study in more detail during the coming year. Right: Flower buttons of Vanilla hartii. All three species are native to the lowland tropical rainforests of Costa Rica and are growing within our study region ACOSA. Photos: Charlotte Watteyn & Ruthmery Pillco Huarcaya

As part of the study, we made experimental plots, where we planted four aromatic vanilla CWR—V. hartii, V. odorata, V. pompona and V. trigonocarpa—in both reforestation areas and organic cacao plantations. One of the plots is located at Osa Conservation’s Osa Verde Agroecological Farm. We will measure growth and survival rate over time, as well as production and pollination processes during later stages.

We will be monitoring the vanilla’s success over the next few months and keep you updated with the first results of this exciting (and delicious) research!

 

The planting team at Osa Verde (Marvin, Johan, José, Ruth and Charlotte). We planted 120 vanilla plants, 30 plants of each of the four species, in our experimental plot within a 3-year old reforestation area with a mix of native tree species that act as tutor trees. Photos: Charlotte Watteyn and Ruthmery Pillco Huarcaya

Land Conservation and Forest Restoration

Keeping Up with our Vanilla Conservation

Blog Post written by Ruthmery Pillco Huarcaya, Research Field Assistant Biodiversity & Conservation

I love vanilla! But did you ever wonder where it comes from? From the vanilla bean. But not from a tree; it comes from an orchid, which grows up the tree as a vine.

However, it is not that simple. Each flower opens for only 24 hours and must be pollinated within 8-12 hours. If pollination does not occur the flower wilts, drops from the vine, and no pods are produced. The vanilla bean’s pollen is covered by a little septum (called the rostellum) that separates the anthers (male features), and stigma (female features). This means the some creature to go in and break this septum; a pollinator. It also means that vanilla conservation is a tedious and difficult task. 

Vanilla Plant

Photo by Ruth Pillco Huarcaya

 

(The history of vanilla, and more about pollination and conservation, can be found here)

Costa Rica has approximately 12 species of vanilla, at least four of which are found around the Osa Conservation’s biological station and adjacent landscapes. Only two species are grown to produce commercial vanilla: V. planifolia and V. madagascariensis. Because the natural pollinators are unknown, pollination is performed by hand, and low levels of genetic diversity are expected in cultivated plants.  

camera trap for vanilla

Photo by Ruth Pillco Huarcaya

Many Vanilla species are threatened in the wild. Here at Osa Conservation, we want to understand the ecology of wild vanilla, and gain a better understanding of their habitat preference, and reproductive strategies. We want to know where they like to live, who their pollinators are, and who disperses their seeds. This could help us to develop proper conservation strategies, and allow us to test profitability for commercial production in areas such as secondary forests, restoration plots and fruit gardens.

Vanilla pollination

Photo by Ruth Pillco Huarcaya

To do so, we have been using wildlife camera traps to monitor the flowers and beans, and have spent hours directly watching the flowers. So far, a population of Vanilla hartii was found flowering, and after a few long hours of observation and camera trapping, the little Stripe-throated hermit hummingbird was observed visiting their flowers; a potential pollinator or a nectar thief?

Our work will continue until we can really discover the secrets behind wild vanilla in the Osa Peninsula.

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