Orchids with air (aerial) roots are classified as epiphytes. They are found growing all over the world from cloud forests in South America to the jungle floors of Africa and the Pacific islands. Usually found living on trees, the orchid's roots wrap around the limbs, anchoring the plant without penetrating the bark. Just as the roots of terrestrial plants take up nutrients from the soil, the specialized roots of epiphytic orchids take in minerals, moisture and nutrients from the air.
When it's time to repot your orchid, what to do with all those air roots can present a dilemma. Getting them out of the pot is only half the battle since getting them back in can be an even bigger challenge. Patience and a little knowledge can help you manage the task with ease.
What Is an Epiphyte?
An epiphyte is a plant that grows on another plant but is not parasitic, such as the numerous ferns, bromeliads, air plants, and orchids growing on tree trunks in tropical rainforests.
How Do Orchids Grow?
Orchid plants grow in two different ways defined as monopodial or sympodial. Those with a monopodial type growth become taller each year with new leaves appearing at the tip of the stem. Flower spikes and aerial roots form at the junction of the leaf and the stem and sometimes on the stem opposite a leaf. The end result is a ccmbination of roots, leaves and flower stems that often appear above the surface of the growing medium in the pot, although some roots will grow down into the pot.
When to Repot an Orchid with Air Roots
Orchids with a monopodial habit, grow up instead of increasing in size at the base. As a result, they seldom need to be repotted in larger pots. A good example of an orchid of this type is the Phaleanopsis. After about two years, though, the medium should be replaced as any nutritive value will be depleted. Orchids should be repotted after the bloom period is complete when most go into a "rest" period or dormancy. Orchids with air roots can be repotted with new planting materials in the same pot or a different pot of the same size.
Before Getting Started
The best way to remove the orchid from it's current pot is to soak the pot in cool, not cold, water for 30 minutes. This will help soften and loosen the growing medium, making it easier to separate any roots that are buried and remove roots that may extend through openings in the pot (as in an orchid pot.) Soaking can be done in a sink or a bucket.
It's always a good idea to have all your materials and tools gathered on a flat working surface with a nearby water source. A small wooden dowel or stick will help push the planting materials in around the downward growing roots.
Equipment / Tools
- 1 Hand pruner or snip
- 1 Small wooden dowel or blunt stick
- Pebbles, small rock, broken pot pieces
- Fir bark
- Spaghnum moss
- 1 4 to 6 inch clay pot or orchid pot
- Water bucket or sink
Soak the Orchid in Its Pot
Fill a bucket or sink with cool, not cold, water. Place the orchid in it's pot into the sink or bucket and soak for approximately 30 minutes. Remove the pot and thoroughly drain any excess water.
Remove the Orchid from the Pot
Using your fingers, grasp the orchid at its base, beneath the lowest leaves. Gently wiggle the orchid while pulling upward to loosen it from the planting medium. While still holding the orchid, you can turn the pot over to dump out loose planting material. When all planting material is removed from the pot, gently ease any remaining roots through other openings in the pot. Avoid bending the roots; orchid root tips are fragile and the roots could break. Once all roots are free, lift the plant from the pot.
Examine the Orchid
Air roots may range in color from silvery gray to green with a slightly swollen dark green tip. Using the snips, cut back to healthy tissue any roots that appear brown or shriveled. Place the orchid on a dry cloth or paper towel.
Prepare the New Pot
An orchid pot or one with additional openings for drainage works best for orchids with air roots. Clay is preferred over plastic because it wicks moisture. It is also perfectly fine to use the same pot. Make sure it is clean without buildup of salts or mossy growth. Scrub the pot if necessary. Begin filling the pot with a shallow layer of pebbles, small stones or broken pot pieces. This improves drainage.
Place the Orchid in the Pot
Return the orchid to the pot, gently easing the air roots into position the way they naturally want to grow.This may include easing some roots through additional holes (as in an orchid pot). Avoid bending or compressing the roots as much as possible. Roots which are growing up or out should not be forced down into the pot.
Fill the Pot With Planting Material
Add the suggested grade of fir bark for your orchid. Begin by dropping several pieces into the pot. Use a small wooden dowel or blunt stick to snug the bark in around any roots that will be submerged or are extending through holes in the pot. The bark should not be packed too tightly but snug enough to securely anchor the orchid. Fill the pot to within 1 inch of the rim with fir bark. Add a layer of sphagnum moss on top.
Allow the Orchid to Recover
To avoid transplant shock, place the plant in a cool location with good air circulation. Withhold water for several days up to one week.
Resume Regular Routine Care
When the orchid shows signs of renewed active growth, resume regular maintenance. New growth will appear as the start of a new leaf and/or air root.