Florida grown Vanilla might be on the way

Published: May. 2, 2019 at 4:55 AM EDT
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Dr. Alan Chambers is an assistant professor in Tropical Plant Breeding at UF IFAS. He's leading a group of scientists in Homestead who want to give Florida farmers the option to grow Vanilla for the first time. Florida has several naturally growing native Vanilla species whose DNA could make important future vanilla cultivars.

Vanilla isn't commercially grown in Florida, but the state has flavor houses where internationally grown vanilla beans are processed for vanilla extract. Dr. Chambers explains that South Florida is in a perfect position to grow some of their own vanilla too. "We have good cultivars, the right climate, and growers interested in new and exciting crops so everything blends well," Chambers explains.

The United States is the biggest importer of Vanilla beans in the world, but a lot of the vanilla flavored food products are not made with true vanilla. Chambers explains that companies can only use pictures of vanilla flowers, beans, or put the word "vanilla" on the ingredients label if the product comes from the orchid. Vanillin, for example, is not derived from a Vanilla plant.

But Floridians may be able to purchase locally grown vanilla soon. The hurdle that Chambers and his team are trying to pass is sourcing enough of these plants to get farmers started.

Farmers will be starting out with the same vanilla plants other are using around the world, but Chambers hopes the secret to the success of the Vanilla industry may be hidden inside the DNA of Florida's rare Vanilla species.

"One of our native species is reportedly resistant to the #1 pathogen of the commercial vanilla. The question is, is there a gene in that plant we can hybridize into the commercial type and take care of the number one pathogen. Which means you don’t have to spray fungicides, you preserve your yield. It’s a win all around."

The tropical research and education center hopes their extensive vanilla collection will provide something special for Florida growers who are looking to try a new crop that's high yield, low density, and an exciting local option for Florida Vanilla lovers.