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Roots are the basis of any orchid plant. It’s very important for your orchid to have a robust root system; the orchid takes in water and nutrients through its roots which in turn allows the whole plant to grow, thrive, and ultimately put out those beautiful blooms.

First I’ll take a moment to show you what roots look like on the most common orchid, the phalaenopsis (aka moth orchid). Phal roots, when healthy and moist, are a nice green color, like so:

Healthy, dry roots are usually silvery or white in color, like these:

Photo credit: rainyfoxy, Flickr

Rotten roots are those that have turned brown; they are mushy when wet and twig-like when dry. If the roots are SUPER dead, the outer covering will sort of disintegrate and you’ll see wiry, stringy-looking things. You can see some healthy roots AND some dry rotten roots on the same plant in the image below. The rotten ones are the brown/tan color:

Photo credit: The Plant Geek Chronicles

When you bring home a new phal, it’s best to take it out of the pot right away, remove any potting medium that’s stuck to the roots, and take a look at them. If you find any rotten roots, make sure to trim them away with a sterilized cutting tool (a razor blade or gardening shears will do the trick). Then repot the plant in fresh medium and it should be much happier. Root rot can lead to mold or may even spread to the nearby roots and slowly kill the plant.

The first two orchids that I brought home had rotten roots, but at the time I didn’t know that I should unpot, trim, and repot them ASAP. As a result, those poor plants weren’t able to take in enough nutrients to survive and they each died within a month or two. Now I know better, and I’m happy that I can share this knowledge with you. Consider this my Orchid PSA…The More You Know…   :)

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43 Responses to “How to Identify Healthy vs. Unhealthy Roots”

  1. [...] top roots in image to the right); moist roots are green (see bottom roots in image). And remember: brown/mushy roots are bad. Aerial roots – those that you can see sticking out of the top of the pot – dry [...]

  2. [...] take a good look at the orchid’s root system and cut away any  rotten roots (see my post on identifying healthy vs. unhealthy roots). Conversely, you may find a really nice set of roots like [...]

  3. [...] How to Identify Healthy vs. Unhealthy Roots February 2010 2 comments 5 [...]

  4. Molly E. Binek says:

    I bout my first orchid today, and I’m concerned about the roots growing outside the pot. They seem the be the right silvery color for the most part, but some look damaged – twisted or bent, with tan dryness at the damaged spots. Is this bad for the plant? Here are links to pictures took (sorry about the small size and bad quality, the pictures were taken with my phone.)

    http://www.ubcbotanicalgarden.org/forums/attachment.php?attachmentid=88234&d=1300682617

    http://www.ubcbotanicalgarden.org/forums/attachment.php?attachmentid=88235&d=1300682617

    http://www.ubcbotanicalgarden.org/forums/attachment.php?attachmentid=88236&d=1300682617

    • Congrats on your first orchid, Molly! Some of those roots do look dead. The dry brown twisty ones are rotten and aren’t going to do anything to nourish the plant. You should trim those away with a sterile knife or scissors. I also recommend removing the whole plant from the pot and inspecting the rest of its roots to see how those are doing. If any of them are rotten, you should cut those too, and then you can repot the plant after you’ve removed the dead material.

      I hope that helps – good luck!!

      • Molly E. Binek says:

        I unpotted it. Some of the roots are green but the majority of them are white with green at the tips. Are these ok, or rotten?

  5. It’s hard to say without seeing a photo. Feel the roots – are they firm, or squishy? If they are firm then they are most likely fine. When roots start to rot they get squishy (when wet) or feel crunchy and hollow (when dry).

  6. Molly E. Binek says:

    And as far as texture, they feel hard and crisp. Not squishy or dry.

  7. Molly E. Binek says:

    I just realized that link might not work. here’s another link

    http://oi55.tinypic.com/vj3lz.jpg

  8. You’re very welcome, Molly! Thanks for reading my blog and good luck with your first orchid! Beware…they are VERY addictive. :D

  9. Martyn says:

    I have just bought my first 2 Moth orchids and B&Q Diy were selling them cheap. I would like to thank you for your posting as this has been the most usefull of the pages and pages I have trolled theough on the internet.
    Thanks again,
    Martn

  10. Martyn says:

    The question I now have is………………..what do I do to the shriveled white roots?

    • Try feeling the roots. If they’re mushy, then they are rotting and should be cut with sterile garden shears or clippers. If they are firm, however, then they are still in good shape and are probably just dehydrated. If they are aerial roots (growing outside the pot) it’s good to mist them with water once a day to keep them hydrated.

      Hope that helps!

  11. Martyn says:

    Thanks for your reply. I`ll cut the wilted bits now.
    I won`t know if it helps but they will look better

  12. [...] example, just in the past week, my spike vs. root post has been viewed nearly 6x as many times as my second most viewed post of the week. Clearly, “is it a root or is it a spike?” is a big question for new orchid [...]

  13. [...] example, just in the past week, my spike vs. root post has been viewed nearly 6x as many times as my second most viewed post of the week. Clearly, “is it a root or is it a spike?” is a big question for new orchid [...]

  14. Luci says:

    I am opting to grow orchids on my apricot tree and maybe olive tree as I
    live in CA. I am new at this and need to find all the info I can.
    Anyone have an idea or thought. thanks alot. Luci

  15. Luci says:

    Anyone have advice on growing orchids on trees.

  16. Kathleen Reiling says:

    I have a potted orchid that is 5 years old, to water it I am to place an ice cube 3 times a week, I have noticed that I have silver things coming out of the pot with tan/brown tips,, look like roots, I don’t know what to do, the stem for the orchids is growing for the flowers,, I don’t know how to replant or if I am suppose to,, this is my first plant. Can you help me, Some ppl on your site said to spray water on the roots,, but like I said my plant directions says to use ice to water it.

    • Hi Kathleen,

      I don’t recommend watering with the ice cube method — this is more of a marketing tool than a solid orchid care method. When you water orchids, it’s best to thoroughly drench them once every 7-10 days under the faucet with lukewarm water, and then let the pot drain really, really well. It sounds like you have some new roots growing, so that is great! If those roots dry out in between waterings, you can certainly mist them with water to keep them moist. This post has some general advice on how to water orchids: http://bklynorchids.com/2010/03/12/how-to-water-a-phalaenopsis-orchid/

      Since you have a new flower spike growing, I recommend not repotting just yet. You can wait until the orchid has finished flowering and then repot it, taking care to cut away any roots that may be rotten.

      I hope that helps!

  17. Brenna says:

    I just got what I think is a phal as a gift. I did as instructed, however, the roots are wound so tightly in the middle in a sort of spiral growth that I couldn’t get the moss stuff that I was afraid to pull it out for fear of damaging the roots. I cut away what rot I could t hen repotted in the same container it came in. Should I get it a bigger pot?

    • Hi there — orchids actually like to be pretty pot-bound, so you may not need to get a bigger pot just yet. You are going to want to try to get the rest of the moss out of the center of the roots. What might help is if you remove the plant from the potting medium and run it under water for a bit to soften the root mass and help loosen up the middle. Just be patient and you’ll be able to get the moss out of there. Good luck!

  18. Tran says:

    I’ve found your page so informative! I hope you can help me out.

    I just adopted a White phalaenopsis from the office and I am attempting to rescue it and hopefully nurse it back to wellness. I’m wondering if you can give me your input:

    -Luckily, the leaves are a deep green color with no yellow/brown spots, but they are limp and not all, but a couple are looking wrinkled.
    -Upon inspection, I found that the orchid had barely any root system–it had been living in a brown plastic container filled with moss medium. I can’t tell how much of the root system has rotted away; if old rotten roots were buried in the moss. I used sterile scissors to cut away everything that looked brown/black or soggy; there was some, but really not that much rotten roots to speak of. The 2-3 roots that are still around are firm. When I watered them, they became a more vibrant pale green, but as the day went on they went back to their silvery grey/green color.
    -There is the 1 set of roots that was sitting pretty much on top of the moss, then there are 2 aerial sets of roots.
    -There was 1 blossom that, 2-3 weeks ago, was looking strong, but since has gone limp and sad. I cut it off above a healthy looking node close to the leaves–I was hoping to get rid of parts of the plant, so that the roots can work on getting well before using energy on other parts that, at this point, aren’t so important.
    -I am using a large clay pot (without holes) and I’ve put the plastic container, but upside down to create a shelf/seat. Then (because I don’t want to spend money on this project if it will end poorly) I tore up a large pulp-paper/recycled egg carton into large pieces instead of bark for the orchid to sit on/sit in. I’ve put some water into the large clay pot, but not so much that the roots are touching it.

    I apologize for making this difficult, but I don’t have any pictures. So with that, here are my questions:
    -I can’t tell if this orchid had previously been overwatered or underwatered. And so I don’t know which approach to take in these first few weeks of trying to help it along.
    -Is it possible or a good idea to cut the orchid into 3 smaller plants, since it has 3 root systems? Will that be beneficial for it?
    -Are aerial root systems strictly aerial roots forever?
    -If it is dehydrated, what are your thoughts on placing a clear plastic bag over it to promote humidity and hydration?
    -Any ideas on how long I’m looking at in regards to seeing progress?

    I’d appreciate any and all the advice you can give me. Thanks!

    • Hi there and thanks for your questions! I’ll try to answer them as best I can.

      -I can’t tell if this orchid had previously been overwatered or underwatered. And so I don’t know which approach to take in these first few weeks of trying to help it along.
      Because the leaves are wrinkled, it sounds like the plant is dehydrated. However, this is not necessarily due to underwatering. It sounds like the roots may have rotted off due to overwatering, in turn leaving the plant with not enough roots to keep the whole plant well hydrated when it does get watered.

      -Is it possible or a good idea to cut the orchid into 3 smaller plants, since it has 3 root systems? Will that be beneficial for it?
      Definitely don’t try to split the orchid into 3 separate plants. Phalaenopsis orchids aren’t meant to be split up, especially when they are ailing.

      -Are aerial root systems strictly aerial roots forever?
      Aerial roots are normal for Phalaenopsis orchids, as they are epiphytes (in the wild grow off of tree branches, rocks, etc and gather water and nutrition from the surrounding environment). Aerial roots may not be aesthetically pleasing, but they are fine — just make sure to mist them every day or two to make sure they don’t dry out too much. I don’t recommend trying to bend the aerial roots to fit into the pot, because they can easily break off.

      -If it is dehydrated, what are your thoughts on placing a clear plastic bag over it to promote humidity and hydration?
      You can certainly try this. I’d also recommend making a humidity tray to set the pot upon.

      -Any ideas on how long I’m looking at in regards to seeing progress?
      Unfortunately there’s no way for me to tell how long it will take for the plant to recover. My advice is just be patient and you will hopefully be rewarded for your work!

  19. CHora says:

    Hi,
    My orchid I received in October. I live in the Southern Hemisphere so summer at the moment. My orchid was in bloom when I received it and one of the bottom leaves was wrinkly and yellow, the orchid know-all that I saw at the time said it was just old age and the lower leaf out of six was plucked off. He also gave me some of his fertilizer the uses on his own orchids (Which look amazing!) and I followed his instructions to the dot. That was Christmas, Now the other lower leaf is doing the same, I presumed old age as well as it is opposite the other. But I noticed that I watered it over two weeks ago and it had still not gone dry or evaporated in the hot weather we are having. This suggested to me that the roots had a problem so I dumped the orchid (now not in bloom) out onto a tray and found that probably 98% of the roots have gone brown and like hollow straws. There had been a new root sprouted at the very base and is about as long as my smallest finger. This and another piece about the same size are all that are still not mushy and dead looking.

    I am wondering if it is at all possible to save the plant if I trim off all the dead matter and place in some new dry material such as peat moss? The top two leaves are still think and green but both bottom leaves show dehydration/old age yellowing wrinkly and its just beginning on the second leaf on the side with three still left.

    What should I do?

    • Sarah says:

      Hi there – I’ve had similar experiences with some orchids. I’d recommend trimming the dead roots and repotting, like you suggested. Potting in an orchid bark mix may do better for your orchid, as sphagnum moss doesn’t allow for as much air flow around the roots. Once it’s repotted, you’ll want to keep your orchid in a humid area, but make sure not to overwater it. Good luck and happy growing!

      • CHora says:

        Thanks!
        I did that exactly, I might employ the plastic bag technique to increase humidity. Also figured instead of watering heavy once every 1-2 weeks just do a little bit cause it can only soak up so much with so little root system.
        Thanks for your help!

  20. Melinda says:

    Hi just wondering what you can tell me about roots that are turning yellow? Some of the root is green (towards the bottom but the tops of the roots are starting to turn yellow

  21. Valerie says:

    Hello,

    I was given an orchid as a gift. It’s my first orchid and I really love it. The problem is that it has some yelow-brown roots. I’ve read that you recommened to repot new orchid and trim rotten roots, but my flower is blooming. What should I do?

    Thank you in advance

    • Sarah says:

      Hi Valerie,

      It does sound like the roots are beginning to rot. Even though your orchid is in bloom, I’d recommend trimming the rotting roots away and repotting, to help prevent further problems down the line. Just handle your orchid delicately when you remove it out of the pot so that you don’t break any of the blooms off!

      Good luck and happy growing.

  22. Lauren says:

    Hi, I have been growing my phal for over a year.
    I like to think I take pretty good care of it.
    It currently has three brand new roots starting to grow and possibly another one getting ready. Where the second node is, there is what looks to be a little green lump (im guessing this is a new branch?)
    When checking if my roots are healthy I have found lots of fresh green ends in and around the inside of the pot. Does this mean my root system is healthy or should I still be checking for rot?
    Also, do you have any tips to make the possible new branch grow faster so I see some flowers sooner rather than later??
    Thanks:)

    • Sarah says:

      Hi Lauren, thanks for commenting. It sounds like your orchid is doing quite well. You may want to remove the orchid from the pot and just check the roots to make sure they’re in good shape and if not, trim away any rotten ones. It’s hard to judge the health of all the roots just by looking at the tips that you can see. The green lump growing out of the node is likely going to be a side shoot and will probably put out a few blooms for you—exciting! Unfortunately, there’s no way to force it to grow faster, which is why patience will be your new best friend. But trust me, it’ll be worth it once those flowers open up. :)

      Happy growing!

  23. Amada says:

    I think I killed my plant. I have been trying to take care of, repotted added new moss, changed its position. She is just not happy also tried miracle grow in the water and not so good. All the roots are rotten. The leaves were healthy but now look yellow streaked. I cut off all dead roots. Please any advise???

  24. Sheri says:

    I adopted a phalenopsis within the last month or so from my aunt. It seems to be a very healthy plant albeit flopped over. A new leaf has started growing and I have ariel roots. My aunt mentioned something about it getting ready to flower but I see no shoots. I believe the it has some dead roots in the pot. Should I repot now or wait until after the new leaf has stopped growing to see if shoots start coming up?

    I did have one leaf that turned yellow.

    Also is there anything special I need to do to sterilize the tools?

    • Sarah says:

      Hi Sheri,

      I would recommend repotting now to make sure you get rid of any old, rotten roots to keep the rot from spreading. To sterilize, you can use rubbing alcohol or a flame along the tool’s edge. And you can check out my post about how to tell the difference between a root and a spike to see if any of your aerial roots are actually spikes!

      Good luck and happy growing!

  25. Shannon says:

    Hello!
    I have just received a Phal Orchid for the holiday season and I am so nervous because I love plants but I’m a beginner when it comes to Orchids. It came in a clear plastic container with draining holes.
    All aerial roots are firm and crispy although some are a bit brown when they fold over. The roots I can see through the moss are green and healthy, but a couple of brownish, mooshy-ish roots are poking out of the bottom holes.
    Should I trim them of? Should I repot? (I’m hesitant about repotting because the plant is in full bloom and otherwise seems healthy.)

    Thank you for your time,
    Shannan

  26. Hi Luci, unfortunately I don’t have any experience growing orchids on trees (though I hope to get the opportunity to try someday!). I recommend joining OrchidBoard.com and asking around in there. The folks there are very knowledgeable & helpful!

    http://orchidboard.com/community/

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