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.
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:
I was checking out my orchids this morning and I discovered that my Iwanagara Appleblossom is already starting to put out two new roots, which is super exciting because the plant was left with only three decent roots after I cut away the bad ones. Knowing the state of the orchid’s roots, I was a little unsure whether I’d be able to nurse it to health, but things are already starting to look up:
As I mentioned yesterday, there is a whole lot of new growth going on with my orchids, and I’m so thrilled that, of course, I have to share some pics here! Click on each photo to see a larger version.
Since I posted about my dying orchid three days ago, it has gone downhill even more. After removing the dead leaves and rotten roots the other day, I was left with two big leaves, one small leaf, and a tiny stump of a root which looked like it was already beginning to rot.
I repotted the plant but one of the big leaves started yellowing pretty quickly so I decided to remove the leaf, as well as the whole root base which looked like it was rotting. So I was left with…not much. No roots at all. Not even much of a plant stem. Time for a sphag-n-bag attempt!
A month and a half ago, I blogged about a couple of my Phalaenopsis orchids that were in sad shape. I write today with both good news and bad news. Let’s start with the bad news first: one of these two orchids now appears to be on its way out. :/
When that leaf on the right started going yellow, I still had hope for this orchid. But when the leaf on the left started turning too, my hope started to fade. I think I will take it out of the potting mix and see if there’s anything left that can be salvaged but I’m wondering if there’s just too much rot under there. 🙁
And now for the good news: the other sad Phal (the one on the left on the photo, in the green bowl) seems to be making a comeback! Last time I wrote, there was just the teeniest root nubbin starting to poke out of the base of the plant. Since then, that root has grown and another two have started to come in. Even better, which I just noticed a moment ago, the plant is beginning to grow a new leaf out of the top of the crown—a definite sign that it’s recovering after all!
A second piece of good news is that my biggest Phal is about to bloom! There are eight buds so far and one of them is just beginning to open up today. I’m super excited about this one – its blooms are GORGEOUS. You better believe I’ll post photos when its blooms open up!!
UPDATE: OK, so I just realized that the dying orchid is a Doritaenopsis, not a Phalaenopsis like I originally thought. The tag says “Dtps. Sogo Kitty” and for some reason this whole time I just ignored those four letters “Dtps” because it looked like a Phal. Doritaenopsis is a hybrid of Phalaenopsis and Doritis, but they need basically the same conditions as Phals. I just removed the dead leaf and some more rotted roots, and repotted the plant with a mixture of sphagnum moss and bark, hoping the mixture will help it get more air circulation and will rot less. We shall see…
Selecting an orchid to buy can be quite a decision. For those who simply want the instant gratification of something lovely to display in their home, the “Oooh, pretty, I’ll take it!” method works just fine. But if you’re buying an orchid with the long term in mind, there are a few things you’ll want to look for before you head to the checkout counter. Bear in mind that these tips are mainly for Phalaenopsis orchids, but the general principles will work for many other orchid varieties as well.
As always, I’ve included photo examples for your viewing pleasure.