I’m willing to bet that most orchid growers are introduced to the hobby through Phalaenopsis orchids (aka moth orchids) that are already in bloom. Phals are attractive houseplants even when they’re not in bloom, but let’s be honest: when was the last time you fell in love with an out-of-bloom Phal in the store and just had to have it?
With some basic care, it’s not hard to keep a Phal alive through its blooming cycle, but once those pretty blooms fade and you cut the flower spike, how do you get an orchid to bloom again? Too many people feel intimidated at the thought and just toss the “dead” plant away. Please, I beg of you: do not throw your no-longer-blooming orchid in the garbage! Getting an orchid to re-bloom can feel challenging, but once you get the hang of it and your orchid flowers again for you, it’s SO worth the bit of work you put in. You CAN get a healthy orchid to re-bloom! Here are the basics…
If you’ve asked the question above, you are not alone! Let’s first geek out a little about words and define “aerial roots.” The prefix “aer-” is derived from the Latin word aer, which means air. So the word aerial itself is the key to unlocking the meaning. In orchids (as well as many other plants), aerial roots are roots that grow from the base of the plant upward, or out into the air, rather than down into the soil or inside the pot.
What is the purpose of aerial roots? Well, a great many types of orchids, including the most popular household orchids—Phalaenopsis—are epiphytes, as are Dendrobium, Oncidium, Vanda, Cattleya, and many many more. This term is used to describe plants that grow attached to other plants, trees, branches, stumps; in other words, epiphytes do not grow in soil. Rather, an epiphyte’s roots are exposed to the air (hence the term “aerial roots”) and cling to the surface of tree trunks and other organic matter while soaking up water and nutrients from the plant’s environment. These roots form the building blocks of the orchid and are absolutely vital to its ability to thrive.
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).
Like all living things, orchids need nutrition. Feeding (fertilizing) your orchid is an important part of caring for it and making sure that it lives a long and healthy life. This post about how to fertilize an orchid is waaaaayyy overdue…but better late than never, right? I’m going to talk specifically about fertilizing Phalaenopsis (moth) orchids because Phals are the most common orchids for beginners, available everywhere from corner delis to Home Depot, Ikea, and Trader Joe’s.
So you have a beautiful Phalaenopsis orchid, but its blooms are starting to wilt and fall off. What do you do now?! First of all, don’t freak out and throw your plant in the garbage; fading flowers are totally normal and they do NOT mean that your orchid is dying! Orchids can live for years and years and years with the proper care. Part of this proper care is knowing when and where to cut the flower spike. This is one of the most common questions I get in the comments section of my blog posts, so I thought it would be helpful to write about how to proceed once your Phal (the most widely available type of orchid) has finished blooming.
So in the interest of helping orchid growers out even more, I decided to do another post on this topic, this time with LOTS of photo examples to help better illuminate what a root looks like and what a spike looks like. If you haven’t read my original post, I recommend doing so before you dive into this one. All the below photos are of orchids in my own collection. Because you’ll see more roots growing from your orchid than spikes, let’s begin with root pics: