Keikis: What They Are and What to Do with Them

Keiki: A baby orchid!

Keiki: A baby orchid!

Say you have a lovely Phalaenopsis orchid and one day you notice that there’s something growing off of its spike, something that doesn’t look like a flower bud. Maybe it looks like a new leaf or two (like in the photo to the right)…and after awhile what looks like a root starts to appear. What is this growth? Is it normal, and what should you do with it?

I get a lot of questions like these from readers, so it’s well past time to dedicate a blog post to the topic. The growth I described above is a baby orchid or plantlet, known to orchid lovers as a “keiki” (the Hawaiian term for “the little one”). Keikis are clones of the “mother” plant and can either be left attached to the mother or removed and potted individually once they have grown large enough. Keikis can grow off of the spike or stem of the mother, or they can begun to sprout from the plant base, in which case they are referred to as basal keikis (I currently have two of these developing on one Phal).

Here’s what a basal keiki looks like:

Brand new basal keiki—looks like a tiny new leaf

Brand new basal keiki—looks like a tiny new leaf

And here’s a bigger look at a Phal with a couple different keikis near the top of the spike on the left:

Two Keikis, One Spike

Two Keikis, One Spike

You may have read about my keiki grow experiment which has thus far been pretty successful, but some types of orchids can produce keikis spontaneously without any encouragement from a hormone paste. Phalaenopsis, Dendrobium, and Epidendrum are just some of the types of orchids that are known to generate keikis naturally. In some cases, when an orchid starts to put out a keiki it is trying to tell you that it is not doing well, and it’s making an effort to clone itself to keep its “bloodline” going in case it dies. You shouldn’t panic if one of your orchids begins to grow a keiki—this doesn’t mean it’s about to kick the bucket. However, keiki growth can be an indication that your orchid is damaged or unhappy in some way, so you should reevaluate the way you’re caring for it and try to make adjustments to improve its health.

How can you tell if what’s developing on your orchid is a keiki or just a new growth? A keiki will develop off of the plant’s stem—meaning either the spike or base on monopodial orchids, or the cane on sympodial orchids. Keikis are easier to distinguish on monopodial orchids like Phalaenopsis because they will look just like a couple of tiny new leaves coming out of a spot where they wouldn’t normally grow. Orchids with a sympodial growth habit (meaning they develop new growth laterally rather than growing upward) put out new leads from existing ones. Such new growth is not a keiki—a keiki on a sympodial orchid will shoot off of an already-mature growth. This may be better explained with photo examples…

Here’s a great photo showing a Dendrobium with a keiki—see all those white roots coming off of the cane on near the center of the image?

Photo credit:

For comparison, here’s a photo of one of my Dendrobiums with two new leads poking up from the medium:

New leads, not keikis

New leads, not keikis

In my opinion, experience, any new orchid growth is exciting, but if you have a keiki, congratulations! Now what do you do with it? Like I mentioned, you can leave it attached to the original orchid and let it develop there. You may need to do some extra staking to help support the keiki as it gets bigger, especially if it’s near the end of the spike—these things can become a little top heavy. As the keiki starts to sprout roots you should mist them with water to help keep them hydrated, but make sure you don’t let water sit in the crown because the last thing you want is for your little baby to develop crown rot! You may find that a keiki can spike and bloom even while attached to its mother. Sometimes keikis left to their own devices will eventually fall off the original plant, at which point you can plant the keiki in its own little pot.

You don’t have to leave a keiki attached, though. Once a plantlet has developed at least two or three roots that are at least two to three inches long you can remove it from its mother and plant it in a pot. Removing a keiki isn’t difficult; just follow these steps:

  1. Grab a sterilized cutting implement (A razor blade or gardening shears are best. Household scissors are a little awkward for a job like this).
  2. Very carefully slice through the tissue at the base of the keiki to sever it from the original plant.
  3. Apply an antifungal substance like ground cinnamon to the cut surfaces of both the mother and baby.
  4. Situate the keiki in the center of a small, clean pot and begin to fill the pot with fresh medium. Tap the sides of the pot to help the medium settle in around the roots.
  5. Admire your work!

    Phal keiki (with spike!) after successful removal from mother

    Phal keiki (with spike!) after successful removal from mother & before potting

Care for the keiki the same way you care for its mother. Make sure to water and fertilize regularly and keep it away from direct sunlight so you don’t burn those little leaves. After awhile you may see it spike and bloom! I’ve had a couple keikis spike and bloom for me already, and it’s so much fun to see.  :)

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