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Vanilla sex-Hand pollination in Madagascar

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Madagascar and its Vanilla capital Sambava, was witnessing the hand pollination of (Vanilla planifoliaBourbon Vanilla flowers.

Originally from Mexico and central America, their natural pollinator, a species of Melipona bee,  is nowhere to be found in East Africa and these beautiful flowers will bear no Vanilla beans unless each one is carefully pollinated by hand.

Vanilla sex

The  hidden parts of the very vulvic and seriously sensuous Orchid flower are gently coaxed out, breaking the membrane separating anther and pollen from the stigma. A small flap is lifted and the anther pressed against the stigma while transferring seminal pollen with a sliver of bamboo. The act is completed in a matter of seconds and finished with a kiss of fingers as the flower is pressed firmly to insure full contact and fertilization. Flowers must be pollinated within 12 hours of opening adding a sense of urgency to the process.

Vanilla plants love the elevation, temperature and humidity of this area and flourish everywhere as long as they have partial shade and something to climb on.  Flowers open one at a time in a raceme or cluster that can bear up to 20 beans , ( one a day). The beans in each cluster are of varying maturity and will ripen in the same order as their flowers blossomed. Flowering takes place over a period of 3 weeks and thus, traditional harvesting of fully ripe pods is of the same duration.

A change of management

Recently the government of Madagascar teamed up with Chinese investors who demand the beans be harvested within a one week window to lower their costs. Since they control the market with full government support, there is not much the harvesters can do but comply.

This is only one of a few critical changes instigated by the brokers. Revenue from curing the Vanilla beans has been taken out of the farmer’s hands as well, and now all beans are purchased green and processed by the brokers with cheap local labor. (Vanilla beans have no scent or Vanillin until they are cured). Needless to say, the farmers are not happy with these new rules and many are struggling to make ends meet or turning to other crops to make up for the lost revenue.

Foreign investments in developing countries can often trickle down to communities and local economies, but in this case the farmers are not the beneficiaries. Selling directly to the West and bypassing the brokers may be the only way they can keep their traditions, standards and businesses afloat. Starting with 2 farmers, my hope is to directly market Vanilla beans and Vanilla products to my customers and gather a growing number of farmers over time. Sometimes , you have to start small. In fact, I believe many small acts can add up to big changes.


For more information on the plight of the Vanilla farmers in Madagascar, here is an excellent video.



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Chocolate dreams, Vanilla beans, Cinnamon, Cloves and Lemurs-Madagascar 2016


Grading Vanilla beans
Grading Bourbon Vanilla beans in Madagascar

I have been offered the opportunity to spend two weeks working in Madagascar this October. Short notice and an unexpected expense, but full of potential. I will stay with Vanilla farmers, distil an unusual Elemi, and look at creating value-added products and direct sales that will benefit harvesters, farmers, and their communities. If I can get myself there.

Madagascar is the world’s largest supplier of Bourbon Vanilla and provides us a good portion of our Cloves, Cinnamon, Peppercorns, Ginger and other spices. It is also home to some of the world’s finest Cacao and unique resin-bearing trees that grow nowhere else. All in all a paradise for perfumers, herbalists, apothecaries, distillers and the aromatically inclined.

Almost ripe Vanilla beans

Traditionally, the trade in medicinal and aromatic plants is profit driven with a focus on the bottom line alone. Little thought is given to fair trade practices that benefit harvesters, farmers and their communities. Sadly, there is also a great lack of foresight when it comes to sustainable harvesting in the wild, and agricultural practices that preserve or benefit the local ecological balance.

We are slowly eroding our forests and natural landscapes, losing not only our medicinal and aromatic species, but our wildlife through mismanagement. Madagascar is home to some of the most unusual and unique wildlife on the planet and already losing species through our carelessness. As with my ongoing work with harvesters in East Africa, my goal is to create or source both fair trade and sustainable aromatics and provide them as directly as I can from the harvesters/farmers to my customers.

Since for the most part, I fund my life and all my projects through sales in my Etsy shop, an unexpected trip means getting creative with sales. To this end, I am taking advantage of the shop’s coupon and discount code option to see if I can get enough money together to pay for this trip in the next couple of weeks. It’s short notice and a gamble, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. If I can’t make it to Madagascar this October, that’s OK too and I will definitely visit in the near future.

I am offering a rare 10% discount in the shop for the next 2 weeks. You can use it as often as you like, share it with friends or family and pass it on. The discount code is Madagascar2016  and you will be prompted to type it in at checkout. Here is a link to the shop-Apothecary’s Garden-

After publishing this post I have received numerous comments that asked for the total amount I need for this project and requests to make available an option to donate rather than purchase something from my shop.

I need a minimum of $2,000.00 cover the cost of tickets and some of the basic expenses while I am in Madagascar. In response to the second request I am inserting a Paypal “Donate” button below and in the sidebar of the blog.

If I do get to Madagascar this October, I promise to do my best to post pictures when internet is available, and of course, on my return there will no doubt be aromatic treats circulating among my customers and internet friends.

A deep and warm thank you in advance for everyone’s support for my work, both financial and moral. I could do none of this without you.

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P.S. After you donate through PayPal, you will receive a receipt on behalf of New Dawn Herbal Apothecary. This is the brick and mortar version of Apothecary’s Garden, it is one and the same though the names are different. Dan