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Book Review - Vanilla Orchids: Natural History and Cultivation

posted Feb 12, 2012, 8:18 AM by BCW Native Plant Society   [ updated Feb 22, 2012, 7:14 PM ]
Vanilla Orchids: Natural History and Cultivation.  2011.  Timber Press, Portland OR and London. ISBN 978-0-88192-989-8. 212 pages, 140 color plates.  Listed price $34.95, but $23.07 on amazon.com when I checked on 12 February 2012.

This handsome book by Dr. Ken Cameron, Director of the Wisconsin State Herbarium at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contains everything you would want to know about the natural history of vanilla orchids and their relatives.  True vanilla - not the cheaper, inferior substitute called vanillin - comes from the long, dark, cured “pods” (actually capsules) of the vining orchid Vanilla planifolia, a native of southern Mexico.  By the 19th century demand for this crop was high and it was being grown in plantations on the Indian Ocean islands of Madagascar and Reunion; vanilla plantations are now grown throughout the tropics including Hawaii, where I talked with a new grower on a recent trip.  Dr. Cameron details the difficult and time-consuming work involved in growing, hand pollinating, and harvesting and curing the fruits of this finicky plant.  The 140 color plates in the book are most welcome and document not just the natural beauty of vanilla orchid flowers but the fascinating cultural arcana associated with vanilla, such as Thomas Jefferson’s hand-written recipe for vanilla ice cream.  Finally, Ken traces the relatively close evolutionary relationship of vanilla to temperate U.S. orchid genera as Cleistes, Isotria, and our very own Wisconsin rose pogonia, Pogonia ophioglossoides, which I will never admire again without thinking of my personal favorite ice cream flavor!  I highly recommend this book. 


Emmet Judziewicz
Associate Professor of Biology
UW-Stevens Point