Making the leap into growing orchids is an exciting, but challenging prospect for the beginner. They're especially intimidating when you can't tell if it's alive or if it's showing signs that it's dead.
But is your orchid really dying? Most likely not. Rather it is resting or moving into dormancy to rebuild all the energy required to flower. These are tough plants and, despite a reputation for being finicky, many types are not difficult to grow. They are environment-sensitive and vulnerable to all the same problems as other houseplants including pests and disease.
You don't have to give up on your prized plant when issues arise. Left untreated problems can lead to early death but most can be remedied with adjustments to the care routine. The encouraging news is that once you learn the ideal conditions and provide a consistent maintenance schedule, your orchid can live to put on a show at least once every year for many years to follow.
The Orchid May Be Resting, Not Dead
Orchids actually go into periods of rest during which they do not look their best. Some even look unattractive. They sit there with no signs of growing new leaves or flowers. It can go on for months.
This is a natural part of the plant's annual cycle. Orchids use a lot of energy to put out the exotic, complex blooms that make them so desirable as houseplants. While only a few species go into true dormancy, a period of rest after flowering is normal for all orchids.
Be patient and, even though it doesn't seem to want much attention, don't neglect your plant. You need to continue with regular maintenance for your variety including adequate light, water, temperature and humidity.
For most species, water is reduced and fertilizer is withheld during the rest period. Bright, indirect or shaded, indirect light will satisfy the plant's needs. You may want to move the orchid into a northeast window for several months. Remember to provide a period of complete darkness during each 24-hour stretch.
Is My Orchid Dying or Resting?
It can be difficult to tell, during rest, if your orchid is thriving. If you're uncertain, inspect the plant's leaves, crown and roots.
- Leaves should be sturdy with a slightly pale green color. When they develop extensive pitting or streaking or other abnormal yellow or brown patterning, the orchid likely has contracted a virus. There is no remedy for orchid viruses and eventually the plant will die. (If you suspect a virus but aren't sure, you can have the orchid checked at an agricultural extension office.) Always through dead virus-ridden plants away and thoroughly clean your cutting tools to avoid spreading the virus to other plants.
- The crown — the part of the plant that connects the leaves and roots — should feel firm. When the crown turns dark, and soft or mushy the orchid is likely dead.
- Roots, both aerial roots and those buried in potting media, should be green or white. The aerial roots of epiphytic orchids often turn silvery gray as they mature. Dark brown or black roots mean the plant is failing.
If your inspection indicates your orchid is simply resting, but there has been no sign of new growth during the year, it's time to reevaluate your maintenance routine, identify any issues, and make necessary adjustments to get the plant back on a healthy annual growing and blooming cycle.
12 Signs Your Orchid Needs Attention
Whether they grow in the high mountain ranges of South America or the jungle floors of Africa, most orchids naturally acclimate to a tropical environment. You want to learn as much as you can about the native growing conditions of your specific orchid and do your best to create those conditions in your home.
Almost all problems occur because of a miscalculation in the care routine. Your orchid will let you know when it needs help. The good news is most problems can be fixed before the plant is too far gone. Here are some signs that your orchid is distressed and suggestions for nursing it back to robust health.
Leaves Turn Yellow and Drop
Almost all plants shed their oldest leaves — it's a natural process. There is no need to worry when the bottom leaves on your orchid start to turn yellow. A new leaf may already be emerging or will sprout fairly soon.
When new leaves turn yellow and drop off, the plant is either receiving too much light or water. Add some shade by filtering sunlight through a sheer curtain or move the plant to a cooler location. Avoid temperature fluctuations of more than 10 degrees F as this can create additional problems. Just a few degrees of cooler temperatures can put an orchid back on track. Withhold water for several weeks and follow with a reduced watering schedule until new, healthy leaves emerge.
Brown Tips On Leaves
When leaf tips turn brown, the orchid isn't getting enough moisture. Adjust the schedule to water more frequently and raise humidity. You can increase humidity by setting the plant on a pebble tray of water or installing a humidifier. Avoid getting water droplets on the leaves when using a mister and clean the pebble tray every few months with a 10 percent bleach solution. Orchids perform best in a clean growing environment.
Wrinkled leaves are a sign of underwatering. The leaves can actually fold up on themselves. Give the plant a thorough watering but be sure to drain off excess. Then water the normal amount but more frequently. Affected leaves won't straighten out, but they'll eventually be replaced by healthy, normal ones.
Aerial Roots Dry Up
If your epiphytic orchid is not getting enough humidity, the aerial roots may shrivel, and turn dry and brown. If the root is dead, you can remove it with a sterilized cutting tool. Inspect the root closely before removing it to be sure that it's dead, since even a slightly shriveled root can deliver nutrients to your plant.
Black or Brown Spots on Leaves
Discolored, dark spots on leaves can be sunburn from too much bright light. Moving from a shaded location into bright, direct sunlight is the biggest reason orchids become sunburned. In the wild, most grow under the tree canopy and are acclimated to levels of indirect light, depending on variety.
If the affected leaf begins to turn black or shows signs of rot, remove the entire leaf immediately by cutting it off at the main stem with a sharp sterilized tool. If the unaffected part of the leaf remains healthy, wait for it to be replaced by a new leaf. This can take from several weeks to a month or more. Do not cut the sunburned part out as this can lead to pest and bacteria problems.
If leaf spots increase in size and spread this indicates a more serious problem of fungal or bacterial disease.
Fungal and Bacterial Disease
Fungal and bacterial diseases can affect any part of the orchid and cause tissue collapse. This usually looks like water soaked spots or depressions. These diseases thrive on high humidity but so do most orchids, so prevention is the best approach.
Water early in the day so the plant can dry out before temperatures reach their daytime high. If bacteria or fungus does set in, immediately isolate the orchid. Cut out all diseased parts sterilizing the tool after each cut. Treat cut surfaces with a fungicide and reduce water and humidity until you see signs of new healthy growth.
Orchids grown as houseplants can attract the same pests as any other inside plant. Most common are sap sucking insects like scale, aphids, thrips, mealybugs and spider mites. An infestation results in mottled, disfigured, or chewed leaves. Check the undersides of leaves for crusty or cottony white growth.
Brush insects off by hand or gently clean the leaves with a mild solution of soap and water. Heavy infestations may require a treatment with neem oil or another pesticide. Let the damaged leaves die and fall off naturally unless signs of rot appear. If so, remove the leaf at its base with a sharp sterilized cutting tool and treat the cut with a mild fungicide.
The American Orchid Society has identified 30 different orchid viruses worldwide. The two most prevalent are Cymbidium mosaic virus (CyMV) and Odontoglossum ringspot virus (ORSV). They present as discolored streaks or round spots on the leaves. Other signs of orchid viruses include streaked or malformed flowers that fade and drop more quickly than normal.
Check your orchid often for any suspicious signs and when a virus is confirmed, dispose of the plant immediately. There is unfortunately no cure for orchid viruses.
Limp Leaves or Soft Crown
The crown should be firm with little give when gently pressed. If it feels soft or if the leaves are limp and droop abnormally, the potting medium is waterlogged.
Repot the orchid with fresh growing materials. Withhold water for a week and then resume an adjusted watering schedule.
The Orchid Isn't Growing
Every orchid will go through a natural period of rest during its growing cycle. Keep in mind that not all are on what we might consider a normal schedule for perennial plants. While the growth cycle often begins in early summer and continues throughout, some varieties may not produce flower spikes, buds and flowers until late winter. Growth can be extremely slow. A new leaf may appear but take several weeks to a month or more to reach maturity. A flower spike may appear, shortly followed by buds that may take one or two weeks to open.
Be patient and check the orchid often. Keep the potting material evenly moist and don't try to force the plant with extra watering or fertilizing.
Orchid Won't Bloom
There are lots of reasons why an orchid refuses to bloom and almost all are due to growing conditions that are insufficient for the species or variety. Knowing your orchid's natural growth cycle and rest period is key; the best way to do this is to learn about where and how it grows in its native environment.
Day length is an important factor for flowering. Remember to keep the plant in full darkness during the night.
Flower Buds Fall Off Before Opening
Life begins to get interesting when a flower spike appears followed by buds, but then the buds turn yellow and drop without ever opening into the gorgeous blooms you have anticipated for months. This is known as bud blast.
Avoid moving the plant after the flower spike appears. Make sure it's located in a spot with the correct kind of light where daytime and nighttime temperatures don't fluctuate greatly. Provide plenty of humidity and keep the potting mixture evenly moist. Some plants are sensitive to airborne pollutants. Air quality and good circulation are important but avoid exposing the plant to drafts and breezes.
To prolong the bloom period, once the flowers open it's okay to move the plant to a spot where it will receive more light for several hours each day.
Troubleshooting with Orchids. New York Botanical Garden.
Viruses. American Orchid Society.
Bud blast. American Orchid Society.