Classification & Identification

Vanilla planifolia flowers and vine. [Taken by Greg Allikas,]
Vanilla planifolia, or ‘flat-leafed’ vanilla, is the scientific name for the plant referred to as the ‘vanilla vine’, ‘vanilla orchid’ or simply, and most commonly, as vanilla. The genus name Vanilla, comes from the Spanish name for the spice, which is “vainilla”. 'Vainilla' itself is “a diminutive of ‘vaina’, or a sheath, vagina, pod, perhaps motivated by the sheath-like shape of the fruit,” (Katzer, 2003). The specific-epithet (the species-half of the scientific name), ‘planifolia’, alludes to the flat shape of the leaves of the plant. The common name for the plant, and the well-known 'vanilla' by-product is nearly the same in all languages, except for the native name which is “Náhuatl tlilxochitl” or 'black flower'. Oddly enough, that never caught on!

Scientific classification information is a huge help in identifying an organism, because each of the specific groups will tell you a lot about the traits the organism will exhibit. 

Here’s the complete classification for Vanilla planifolia:
courtesy of the USDA Plant Database  & The UW Madison - Plant Systematics Collection

Domain: Eukarya
Being in the domain Eukarya, Vanilla planifolia is comprised of cells with nuclei, and other membrane bound organelles.

Kingdom: Plantae
As a member of the kingdom Plantae, vanilla has cellulose as the structural component of its cell walls.  Within its cells, there are chloroplasts, an organelle necessary for photosynthesis (a process most members of Plantae perform.)

Phylum: Magnoliophyta
This phylum includes nearly a quarter of a million species of angiosperms (flowering plants).  The plants included have advanced venation patterns in leaves, and a true flower, including the characteristic sepal, pedals, stamen, and carpels.  The flower’s ovules are contained within the megasporophylls, which are either the carpels, or fused carpels.  Self pollination is common, and double fertilization is found in all members of the phylum, producing the stored food tissue endosperm.   

Class: Liliopsida
The class Liliopsida is home to about 60,000 species of angiosperms, and in this case, is synonymous with Monocotelydons.  This being said, Vanilla planifolia has only one cotelydon, as the name suggests.  Its vascular tissues are arranged in bundles, and it also has parallel vein arrangement in its leaves.

Order: Orchidales
The plants in this order are mycotrophic, or live in association with a fungus, mostly commonly seen in the plants roots, as mycorrhizae.   Vanilla planifolia, as a member, has very numerous, tiny seeds with little or no endosperm. 

This is a very large family of mainly tropical, epiphytic and terrestrial plants.  They are characterized by bilaterally symmetrical, ornate flowers, which are clearly visible in vanilla plants.

Genus: Vanilla
This genus is home to tropical, vined orchids which produce long bean-like pods.

Species: V. planifolia
A vined-orchid producing aromatic bean-like pods, originally found in Central America.

Phylogenetic Tree for Vanilla planifolia [Created by Kirsten Ruud, picture taken by Kirsten Ruud]

The family Orchidaceae is one of the largest families of flowering plant.  In total it includes 788 genera, and 18,500 species, to be precise.  Other notable families within the Orchidale order are: Burmanniaceae, Cordiaceae, and Geosiridaceae.  The largest genera within the Orchidaceae family are: Bulbophyllum, with 2,000 species; Epidendrum, with 1,500 species; Dendrobium, with 1,400 species; and Pleurothallis, with 1,000 species.  Vanilla is not included among the high-numbered ranks, having only 110 species to its name.  However, only three of those species are any economic use to humans.  (This tree was based on morphological data.) 

The two main species of Vanilla used for cultivation of its fruit are V. planifolia and V. pompona.  The species connected by the two, Vanilla tahititensis, or Tahitian vanilla, is believed be a hybrid that has stemmed from the two closely related species, but the relationship has not been confirmed.

For an interactive experience with orchid phylogeny visit here:  Note that Vanilla is in the subfamily Vanilloideae, and tribe Vanillinae.  One can view the relationships between these close related genera!

  Vanilla planifolia flower and vine.  [Taken by Greg Allikas,]



Wild vanilla is a thick, tropical, leafy, evergreen vine with wide, fleshy 6-9 inch leaves.  It adheres to the trees on which it climbs by means of aerial roots.  Along the vine, there are clusters of trumpet shaped flowers, which vary in color from cream, to yellow, to green.  When fertilized, the plant produces several thick, 4-6 inch, extremely aromatic pods, each of which contain thousands of near-microscopic seeds.


Let's take a look at some of the wild places around the world where vanilla can be found!
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