ghost orchid

Leafy Vanilla (Vanilla phaeantha)

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 Leafy Vanilla (Vanilla phaeantha)
Summary: Terrestrial-to-epiphytic vine, bearing a single, fleshy leaf and a single root at each axil along the strongly zig-zagging stem. Flowers open singly during morning-time, wilting by afternoon. Flowers are quite large, some six inches (15cm) across with green tepals and a tubular, white lip veined with yellow.

Common Name: Leafy Vanilla

Habitat: Swamps and sloughs in southwestern Florida, in the Fakahatchee Strand and surrounding areas.

Flowering season: June through July

Vanilla phaeantha - vine scrambling up a tree.
Vanilla phaeantha - vine scrambling up a tree.
Vanilla phaeantha - semi-closed flower
Vanilla phaeantha - semi-closed flower
Vanilla phaeantha - fully open flower.
Vanilla phaeantha - fully open flower.


This orchid is one of no fewer than four species of Vanilla historically found in the state of Florida (with one species presumed to be extirpated). It is one of two that actually bears leaves. Plants start their lives terrestrially in the forest floor, but quickly scramble into the nearby trees, where the roots, borne one or a few per leaf axil, act as holdfasts. Eventually, the terrestrial portion of the plant dies off, leaving the plant growing completely epiphytically as it scrambles all over the nearby trees. This particular species tends to zig-zag rather strongly between leaf axils as it grows.

Once plants are mature enough, clusters of buds will be borne at these same leaf axils. Flowers open sequentially over several weeks, typically one-at-a-time. The large, fleshy flowers, around six inches across (the largest orchid flower within the contiguous United States), are surprisingly short-lived, opening in the morning and already fading by afternoon.

After pollination, the stem behind the flower will swell into a typical looking "vanilla bean". Usually, a group of "beans" is borne on the same inflorescence, resembling a clump of miniature bananas. Although this species can be used to create vanilla flavoring, it is considered inferior to the commercial species, Vanilla planifolia. Recently, there have been discussions within horticultural circles of exploring the possible creation of hybrids between Florida species and V. planifolia, toward the end of creating plants that are amenable to growing in Florida, yet which produce quality vanilla flavoring.

In Florida, this species is found primarily in the Fakahatchee Strand, where it is relatively frequently encountered, as well as a few other areas of the Big Cypress Swamp. It is found elsewhere throughout the Caribbean and portions of Central America.

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