Brooklyn Orchids

Tips on Caring for a Sick Orchid

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Exhibit A: wrinkled, limp, yellowing leaf

A few of the most common questions I hear from readers are:

  • “My orchid’s leaves are wrinkled/turning yellow/drooping/falling off, what does this mean?”
  • “My orchid’s roots are brown/mushy/hollow, what should I do?”
  • “My orchid is sick, how do I save it?”

So I thought it was high time I wrote a post with advice on how to nurse an orchid back to health. Please note that these tips specifically refer to Phalaenopsis (aka Moth Orchid) care, because that is the most popular type of household orchid. Also, I’m not going to discuss how to treat orchid pest or viral/bacterial problems in this post…we’ll save those for another day.

First and foremost, DO NOT panic and throw your orchid in the trash just because you’re worried it’s not doing well. With the proper care, orchids can live for years—I’ve had a few orchids for more than six years now!

It’s important to educate yourself on what a healthy orchid looks like—that’ll make it easier to spot something that doesn’t look right. Healthy Phalaenopsis leaves are typically a bright, grassy medium-green color, and they should be smooth, glossy, and firm…like so:

Photo credit: foxyfolksy.com
Photo credit: foxyfolksy.com

A change in leaf color can indicate that the orchid isn’t getting the right amount of light: thinning, yellowish-green leaves or leaves with a red or purple tinge around the edges indicate that the orchid is getting too much light. Conversely, darker leaves indicate that the orchid needs more light. Changes in leaf color don’t necessarily mean the orchid is sick, but they do demonstrate the orchid’s need for a different light intensity.

This Phal has mostly healthy leaves but I should check its root system. Judging from the leaf color, it's also maybe getting too much light.
This Phal has mostly healthy leaves but I should check its root system. Judging from the leaf color, it’s also maybe getting too much light.

However, orchid leaves that have begun to wrinkle are often the first sign that the orchid isn’t getting the right care and may need a little extra TLC. A number of issues can cause wrinkled leaves:

  • Underwatering (causes dehydration)
  • Overwatering (causes roots to rot which leads to dehydated, limp leaves)
  • Not enough humidity (causes dehydration)
  • Unhealthy root system (often due to overwatering; prevents the plant from taking in water and nutrients)

Because an orchid’s roots are, well, the root of the plant’s health, wrinkled and yellowing leaves (like in the photo examples above) tell you it’s time to remove the orchid from its pot and inspect its root system. I’ve written a blog post on how to identify healthy vs. unhealthy roots, which I recommend you read, but to sum it up:

  • Firm, green, or silvery roots = good
  • Brown, mushy, hollow, or crispy roots = bad

In case your orchid has rotten roots, you’ll want to have a few things on hand before you unpot and repot it:

  • Cutting implement (gardening shears or a razor blade will do the trick)
  • Rubbing alcohol to sterilize your cutting implement
  • Fresh potting medium (if you re-use your old potting medium you’ll just re-introduce rot to the plant)
  • Rooting hormone such as Superthrive or Dyna-Gro K-L-N Rooting Concentrate (both available online often at Lowe’s, Home Depot, or your local gardening shop)

GOOD ROOTS: HOW TO PROCEED

So…you’ve taken your orchid out of the pot and examined its roots. If the roots are healthy, congratulations! Go ahead and re-pot your orchid…just be extra careful not to break any of those healthy roots off in the process. To try and figure out why your leaves are wrinkly, rethink your orchid watering schedule—you are probably not watering often or copiously enough. If you’ve been using the “ice cube method” to water, stop right now. That’s a marketing gimmick, not the proper way to water orchids; my post on how to water a Phalaenopsis orchid will help you re-familiarize yourself with the correct way to water. If the humidity is low in the area where you’re growing your orchid, consider buying or DIY’ing a humidity tray to help increase the moisture in the area immediately surrounding your orchid. And you know what? Sometimes orchid leaves simply shrivel up, then turn yellow and fall off because they’re old and their time has come; it doesn’t necessarily mean the entire plant is about to drop dead.  🙂

ROTTEN ROOTS: CUT THEM OFF

But…what if you’ve unpotted your orchid and found a whole mess of terrible roots? It’s time to cut those off! Grab your sterilized cutting implement and have at it with those rotten roots—trim away any that are brown and mushy (if they’re wet), or feel hollow and crispy (if they’re dry). Depending on the size of your orchid’s root system, you may need to use a delicate touch to avoid cutting off any healthy roots. I’ve unfortunately hacked off good roots before so I figured I’d pass that bit of learning on to you!

Now that you’ve cut away your orchid’s crummy roots, your plant is likely going to be a lot happier. If you have a fair amount of healthy roots left, go ahead and repot your orchid in fresh medium. But what if your orchid only has a couple good roots remaining—or none at all?  (Trust me, this happens.) Time to give your orchid a bath in a rooting hormone before repotting it. Rooting hormones are intended to do just that: coax your plant to begin putting out new roots, which will support the plant’s overall growth, health, and longevity.

HOW TO SOAK AN ORCHID IN ROOTING HORMONE

  1. 1. Mix up a solution of rooting hormone in warm water by following the instructions on the label. (e.g., Superthrive is so concentrated that you only need one drop per gallon of water).
  2. 2. Place your orchid in the warm rooting hormone-and-water bath and let it soak for one hour.
  3. 3. After an hour has passed, remove your orchid from the water and use the corner of a paper towel to soak up any water that has seeped into the plant’s crown or crevices between leaves (drying these crevices out will prevent rot).

Now you can go ahead and repot your orchid in fresh medium. You may need to insert a stake into the pot to help keep the plant from falling over.

WHAT TO DO AFTER SOAKING

Some growers recommend not watering your orchid right away after repotting so that the cut surfaces can dry up and callous over—you’re less likely to get more rot this way. You should also re-think your orchid watering method and schedule in general. It’s possible the orchid’s roots were in bad shape when you got it, but you want to make sure you are watering properly moving forward to prevent more root rot from taking hold. And even though you’ve already soaked your orchid in rooting hormone, you can also use the same solution to water the orchid to try and encourage a little more root growth. It’s also helpful to set the plant on a humidity tray and mist the leaves lightly with plain water to help hydrate them while the plant works on putting out new roots.

So that’s my advice on how to care for an orchid with unhealthy leaves and roots. The tips I’ve outlined here aren’t 100% guaranteed to bring your orchid back to perfect health, and I admit that I myself have had varying results with cutting away poor roots and soaking an orchid in rooting hormone, but trying it out gives your orchid a better shot at a long life than doing nothing at all.

Do you have any tried and true methods that you’ve used to nurse your sick orchids back to health? Let me know in the comments!

 

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

 

9 thoughts on “Tips on Caring for a Sick Orchid

  1. hi, I have a phal orchid its maybe 3 yrs old. Its finally growing a flower spike but, my leaves aren’t that great.. It does need to be repotted but, I have to wait. I think its healthy its roots look good to me and its grown many new leaves…The bottom leaves look sickly. I’m afraid to cut off now that its going to bloom.. Do you have any suggestions for me? It would greatly be appreciated…. I’m sorta computer challenged or I would attach a picture. Thank you

  2. I have a phalaenopsis orchid where all the leaves became detached from the bulb. I’m left with an
    orchid with no leaves, just the bulb. Can this plant be saved?

  3. I bought 2 orchids and the outside roots are dried up although the roots in the pot are green. The leaves are nice and green. What do you advise? Thank you

    Maria

  4. I have 4 miniature orchids,I’m a first time grower,always have been skeptical,3 look great,roots and all,1 the roots are browning at the tip,any suggestions?

  5. I buy orchids when they have lots of buds and at least one flower open. I keep them on my outside porch and they stay in flower for at least three to four months. When all the flowers are off, I take the green stretch tape and tie them to the trees. I use a misting bottle ( I use an empty winded bottle with plane water ) and I spray the roots three times a week, until the roots grab hold of the tree.
    I live in Florida and go north for three months, when I return in September they are all starting to bloom.
    While I am up north, I have God take care of them for me. Who is better to take care of them?

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