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 #TheRainforestRetreat, an eco-lodge near #Madikeri in #Karnataka, responded promptly. Well, I just read ‘vanilla’ and screamed ‘yes’ over email. Vanilla is native to South America and the pollinators for the flower are humming birds. In India, somehow the conditions have not been conducive to humming birds 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 humming bird and imagining how beautiful vanilla beans would break out from the flowers that I would pollinate.
On the first day, Ravi, an amazing person and staff, at the Retreat, took me to the area where vanilla creepers grew. In the plantation, which is entirely organic, vanilla is grown along with cardamom and other trees. He handed me a toothpick and demonstrated how the pollination is done.
So, to explain it simply, 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, and 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. All this gets over in maybe three seconds and one needs a steady hand for this.
For the first two flowers that 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. It can take up to three years for a vanilla creeper to bear flowers. Once the flowers wither after successful pollination, it transforms into a vanilla pod. It is these green pods which are plucked and subject to a lengthy 3-month process before it becomes what we are familiar with in our kitchens.
So happy I got this opportunity to be a Nature Fairy to the vanilla creepers.
Rainforest Retreat is located in #Galibeedu village, around 10 kms from Madikeri in South Karnataka, India.
Their website is http://www.rainforestours.com/.
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 #BylakuppeMonastery and the #DubareElephantCamp are close by.