ghost orchid

Fuchs' Vanilla, Mexican Vanilla (Vanilla mexicana)

Part of the Florida's Native and Naturalized Orchids Website

  Kingdom:   Plantae - Plants
    Subkingdom:   Tracheobionta - Vascular Plants
      Superdivision:   Spermatophyta - Seed plants
        Division:   Magnoliophyta - Flowering plants
          Class:   Liliopsida - Monocotyledons
            Subclass:   Liliidae - Lily/related subclass
              Order:   Orchidales - Orchid order
                Family:   Orchidaceae - Orchid Family
                  Subfamily:   Vanilloideae - Vanilloids
                    Tribe:   Vanilleae - Vanilla and related
                      Subtribe:   Vanillinae - Vanilloids

Distribution Map:
Distribution map for Fuchs' Vanilla, Mexican Vanilla (Vanilla mexicana)
Synonyms: Epidendrum aromaticum (Sw.) J.Parm. 1818; Epidendrum vanilla L. 1753; Notylia vanilla (L.) Conz. 1947; Vanilla angustifolia Willd. 1805; Vanilla anaromatica Griseb. 1864; Vanilla aromatica Sw. 1799; Vanilla axillaris Mill. 1768; Vanilla epidendrum Mirb. 1804; Vanilla pleei Porteres 1951; Vanilla vanilla (L.) Huth 1893; Vanilla inodora Schiede 1829.

Summary: Plants begin as terrestrials, becoming epiphytic as they age. Plant a thin liana/vine with short spaces between nodes, each node bearing a broad ovoid leaf and a short root. Inflorescences arise sporadically throughout the spring through fall, each bearing a number of waxy flowers with green, curled tepals and a white lip.

Common Name: Fuchs' Vanilla, Mexican Vanilla

Habitat: Hammocks and swamps. Often in association with sabal palm.

Flowering season: April through October (peaking in May)

Fuchs' Vanilla, Mexican Vanilla (Vanilla mexicana) - Plant
Fuchs' Vanilla, Mexican Vanilla (Vanilla mexicana) - Plant
Fuchs' Vanilla, Mexican Vanilla (Vanilla mexicana) - Foliage
Fuchs' Vanilla, Mexican Vanilla (Vanilla mexicana) - Foliage
Fuchs' Vanilla, Mexican Vanilla (Vanilla mexicana) - Seed Pods
Fuchs' Vanilla, Mexican Vanilla (Vanilla mexicana) - Seed Pods
Fuchs' Vanilla, Mexican Vanilla (Vanilla mexicana) - Flower
Fuchs' Vanilla, Mexican Vanilla (Vanilla mexicana) - Flower


Vanilla mexicana(aka V. inodora) is one of the rarest orchids in Florida. In fact, this species had been presumed to be extirpated (extinct) in Florida after the one hammock near the Miami area where this grew had been decimated by collectors. The only plant of Floridian descent to be photographed was by Carlyle Luer in Fred Fuchs' greenhouse in the 1960s. A collected plant had gone to seed in the greenhouse before it expired, and occasional seedlings had appeared. One survived long enough to produce flowers, but eventually died.

It seems that this species is especially sensitive to transplantation and will subsequently die if moved--a hard lesson learned by all who collected these plants from the original Miami hammock. It is doubtful that this species will ever be amenable to cultivation--it is best left in the wild!

In 1980, a group of botanists conducting an environmental survey discovered a colony in southeastern coastal Florida in a tract of land being developed, as well as some protected natural areas nearby. While reasonably robust, this colony experienced some poaching, but encountered an even more devastating setback - hurricanes. Several hurricanes flooded the coastal areas with seawater from their storm surge...Vanilla mexicana had not been seen in the area since, leading to speculation that they perhaps had really become extirpated in Florida, although it was hoped that some plants might persist and reestablish the population.

Recently, a small colony of plants was found in one of these natural areas. One individual was a very robust plant scrambling 12 feet up its host tree. Many seed pods hung down from the past years' inflorescences, giving hope that more seedlings will grow as the seed is dispersed. At the very top of the plant was a single open flower and a bud...the only remaining flowers that year for the entire colony.

This was one of the most challenging photographs I have ever tried to take, involving placing the camera on a fully extended tripod and lofting it into the air to the flower (with the support of my two sons as well to stabilize it). My Canon T3i has a flip-out/down screen which allowed me to monitor the framing of the flower in live view. I used an infrared remote to trigger the shot, and while many shots did not take, several did.

Plants are known to flower sporadically from spring to fall, giving hope that more flowers might still be seen during the year of their rediscovery. If not, the next year is looking very promising.

Plants begin their lives growing terrestrially from the roots of Cabbage Palm (Sabal palmetto), growing up the nearby tree as a vine. Each segment of the vine is roughly three to four inches long, bearing a single large, broad, glossy, oval leaf and a single root. The roots will adhere to the surface of the tree, allowing the upper portion of the plant to grow epiphytically. Eventually, the terrestrial portion of the plant will die, leaving the plant growing as a true epiphyte.

Flowering stems will arise from near the base of a leaf, usually only along parts of the plant that are exposed to regular sunlight. The inflorescence is a raceme, bearing up to ten flowers. Unlike other species of Vanilla in Florida, which open single flowers sequentially for a period of only a few hours, this species can have several flowers open at once, and individual flowers can last for several days. The flowers themselves are quite glossy, stiff, and fleshy. The tepals (petals and sepals) are a light lime green and often curl and crinkle into contorted shapes. The cream-white lip stands in stark contrast to these and bears a set of cream-yellow crests along its middle.

Pollination seems to be a relatively frequent event. Several plants seen in the area had multiple seed pods per inflorescence. Similar to other species of Vanilla, the seed pods are rather long and bean-like. As far as we know, vanilla flavoring cannot be made from this species.

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