Vanilla, besides being a fragrant extract essential to baking, is a vining orchid native to Mexico. It is not at all difficult to grow indoors given the proper conditions, but it may be difficult to induce it to produce the flowers, which are mostly lime green with long yellow tubes. The large ovate leaves are thick and waxy, and the vines can easily grow to over 100 feet long in the tropics, clinging to trees with aerial roots. The plants are self-fertile and in their native habitat, pollinated by indigenous bees. In cultivation, they are hand-pollinated to ensure production of the vanilla pods that carry vanilla "beans". This labor-intensive method is one reason that vanilla is so expensive. The Aztecs were the first to create the sublime blend of cacao and vanilla. Commerically, major producers of vanilla are Madagascar, Réunion Island and Indonesia.
The orchid family consists of a large number of genera, each with its own unique characteristics. A common characteristic, however, is the basic form of the flower, which consists of three petals surrounded by three sepals -- often in dramatic and contrasting colors and in a variety of shapes and sizes. Although some orchids are native to temperate zones, most orchids tend to prefer a semi-tropical or tropical environment (USDA Zones 9-11) and have epiphytic roots -- meaning they derive moisture and nutrients from the air and support from another plant; few orchids grow in soil. Orchids usually prefer a diurnal temperature fluctuation -- meaning warmer days and cooler nights -- though the absolute temperature range (cool, intermediate or warm) varies by genus and is consistent with their natural habitat. While requiring adequate sunlight for a stunning bloom display, most orchids will not tolerate sustained direct sun.
Many varieties have pseudobulbs, a portion of the stem between leaf nodes that stores water to help sustain the plant through dry periods. Other varieties are monopodial, meaning upward growth is from a single growing point.
There is an exception to almost every general statement one can make about orchids. The family continues to challenge taxonomists.
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