Please note that I stopped being an Amazon affiliate 8/24/2023. Any links that are connecting to Amazon in the following are no longer affiliate links and may not work. The information posted is still accurate and I will revise the article to update links in the near future.
Hopefully you have had a chance to follow the guidance in the first part of this series. If not, please read that post first ( HERE ) – but hold off repotting until you have read this post as well. If you have already freed your orchid from the “death swaddle” in which it was shipped and it is repotted, you will need to unpot for this section. That’s OK – your orchid should do just fine. They are truly very hardy and these next steps are important!
In this second part of the three-part series, we are going to cover a bit about root health and a few common issues. Part 3, the final for this series, will cover potting mediums and sources for real orchid professionals whose methods and recommendations I trust.
As you can see from the pictures below, my Moth orchids have nice plump roots that look a bit like silver/green worms. The roots you see are called “air roots” and should be visible on any Moth orchid you receive or purchase. If not, you will want to make sure your potting medium is soft enough to allow these to reach the surface. More about that later.
If you squeeze healthy roots like those shown, they feel solid and give just a little with pressure. Look over your orchid’s visible roots as you read through the next bullet points to assess your existing roots for issues.
For the Moth Orchid:
- Overly “squishy” roots that are also often dark and possibly feel mushy. (Scroll down to “Really Serious Issues”)
- Fuzzy growths that look like fungus. (Scroll down to “Really Serious Issues”)
- Leaves that appear burned (actual brown or yellow spots). Common issue and an easy fix.
- Dry, wrinkly roots. Gently with thumb and forefinger grasp one of these roots and gently pull away from the plant. If the sheath of the root comes off, leaving a single strand, that root is effectively dead. We will cover this scenario more in the following sections.
For Most Other Orchids:
- Very thin roots that appear mushy. (Scroll down to “Really Serious Issues”)
- The bulbous base (if your orchid type has these – officially known as “pseudobulbs”) is black, rotting, or extremely wilted and dried up. (Scroll down to “Really Serious Issues”)
- Leaves that appear burned (actual brown or yellow spots). Common issue and an easy fix.
- Most of the leaves are dried up completely and pull easily away from top of the bulbous base or cane. Keep reading – a little more complicated.
- Slender white roots that appear very dry, wrinkled. Keep reading!
That’s a list of the most typical issues with orchids – so let’s get to making that baby happy!
Dry Roots and/or Wrinkled Pseudobulbs
While different parts of an orchid, both of these issues often have the same cause – not enough water getting into the roots or pseudobulbs. Depending on what type of orchid you have, pseudobulbs may be round or oblong and very smooth. Orchids that appear to have “canes” (like bamboo) are also storing water within these segmented canes. Sometimes you will see tiny little white roots coming out of the side or tops of the pseudobulbs (or cane segments). These are called “keikis” and are actually a little “offshoot orchid” trying to get started. If you want to know more about keikis, check on the resources listed in Part 3 of this series.
If either your roots and/or pseudobulbs feel dry, or look very wrinkled, it means that your plant, at some point, was not getting sufficient water. If you have a Moth orchid and you can EASILY pull off the outer sheath of a root, exposing that long string interior, that root is actually dead. Truly dried out roots will not recover. Wrinkled pseudobulbs may still store water but not as well if they are very wrinkled. They will also likely never recover their smooth appearance. BUT unless they completely dry up and/or get mushy (Scroll down to “Really Serious Issues”), just leave the wrinkled bulbs alone and focus on making sure the plant is getting sufficient water through the roots and any other bulbs.
Cleaning Up the Roots
Gather up these cleaning supplies before you begin.
- Sharp scissors or exacto knife
- Spray bottle
- New potting soil – unless you JUST repotted with fresh soil after reading the first post and are now working just on the roots. If that is the case, save your existing soil as you unpot your plant in the next section.
- Hydrogen Peroxide (3% is the strongest you should use and dilute it 4 to 1 with four parts water to one part peroxide). Put this in your spray bottle. You will ONLY use this as part of a root trim and can discard the remainder in the bottle afterwards. DO NOT spray anything but the roots, carefully following the instructions very carefully below. Note that some orchid professionals will say this is unnecessary or that you should use a commercial fungicide. I’ve always used this and have had good success, but a good fungicide works well also and comes with specific instructions.
- Alcohol (pour into a bowl deep enough to dip your scissors/knife)
- Newspaper and/or a cookie sheet on which to spread out your orchid (and potting soil if you are saving that for reuse).
First step is to get rid of as many of these dead roots as possible. Get an exacto knife or pair of sharp scissors. Wash these with soap and water, rinse, then dip into the bowl of alcohol. EACH TIME YOU CUT A ROOT, redip your scissors/knife in the alcohol.
Holding your orchid by the base, slowly and gently run your fingers through the roots, removing any loose dead roots and/or soil/bark. Be very gentle and take your time. You may find it easier to lay the orchid on its side and rake through slowly in that position.
For a Moth orchid, “test” each of the roots to see if the sheath will come off easily. I mean EASILY. You should not have to tug hard if that root is dead. If a root feels at all solid – don’t pull – just assume it is OK. After the dead sheaths are removed, if the little strings look clean and have no mold, just leave them alone. They will not transport water and will just dry up completely. If any are moldy/soft, take your knife or scissors and cut off just those damaged strings.
For other orchids, you will follow a similar pattern. Any rotting (mushy) roots need to be cut off completely. Those that are dried up should be clipped back to the base of the orchid. Not sure if a root is dead? As long as it is clean and not mushy or spotted weird – just leave it. Roots die off naturally all the time and leaving a few does not harm the plant at all.
Now, gently spread the remaining roots out and LIGHTLY mist the roots with the peroxide solution. Don’t soak them. This is just to make sure your cut sections are not infected before repotting. Alternatively, you can get a fungicide specific to orchids and use that in this step.
Repot the Orchid
Gather up your potting supplies:
- Potting Soil
- Sphagnum Moss
- Pot (If this is your first repotting of this orchid, your pot should only be slightly larger than the pot from which it has been released.)
- Small bowl of tap water
These are links to supplies I use (I am an Amazon affiliate and will get a VERY small compensation if you purchase through these links. These are products that I have successfully used in maintaining my own orchid collection.)
Take about five strands of moss and put these in a bowl of water to rehydrate. Once wet, take each strand and arrange them equidistant around the edge of the pot, letting bottom of each strand touch bottom of pot and drape the remainder over the edge of the pot. If strands are not long enough, hold onto the top of these strands and pour in just a bit of soil into the bottom of the pot to steady.
Once you can drape the moss, you are ready to add more soil to the pot. You will add about 1″ of soild altogether before beginning to add the orchid roots into the pot. Holding the orchid by the base with the roots dangling into the pot and curling naturally. If you have any “air roots” (ones that were growing above the soil line), be sure they remain loose and above the soil line. Slowly sift your soil back into the pot, going around all but the air roots and filling up the pot to just the beginning of the crown base of the orchid. You might not be able to get as much soil back into the pot – and that’s fine. DO NOT pack down the soil. Roots are the lungs of the orchid and should not be constricted.
Gently water the plant thoroughly. I typically put my pots into a bowl as I pour in the water and add water until it is near the top of the new pot. Let it sit no longer than FIVE MINUTES, then list our your orchid pot and let it drain thoroughly. Set it on a saucer. Keep an eye on the saucer and pour off any excess water that gathers over the next hour or so.
If your orchid had a bloom spire, you could let it continue but as soon as your first petals wilt (yes – even if there are still some happy petals), take a clean, alcohol wiped knife or scissors and cut in front of the last segment on the spire (leave one full segment on the spire). This will help your new orchid put all its energy into the roots and you will be rewarded soon enough with a new spire(s). You don’t have to take this unusual measure in the future – just when repotting.
What to Expect After Root Trims
Don’t despair if your orchid looks a little downhearted after repotting. You may lose a leaf but should not have a mortal “shed”. I think of it as the “big sigh” period. It’s a bit of a shock and yet a bit of a relief. They should be getting water up through their healthy remaining roots – but it takes a bit to get all that plumbing functioning well. Be especially careful not to over/under water at this stage. Don’t let the soil dry out completely during this period – but don’t overwater either. If you stick your finger in the pot and it feels quite cool – it is still damp enough even if the top looks dry. If you can’t tell and it has been a week – go ahead and water anyway and just be sure to let the water fully drain.
During this time period, be sure your plant is never in full unblocked sunlight. Behind a sheer curtain or 6-8 inches away from the window will be best.
Brown Spots, Water Spots, And Leaf Drop
If your orchid has brown spots on the leaf body or tip, or leaves that have turned brown and are coming off, you may have either placed your orchid in a location with too much direct sunlight AND/OR when you water you are getting droplets on the leaves. Water drops on the leaves in directly sunlight act like a magnifying glass and will cause serious burns. Move your orchid out of direct sunlight immediately. Remember – most common orchids that we find in stores evolved as epiphytes that attach and grow up in the leafy branches of trees. They get dappled sunlight/indirect sunlight at best.
When you water, be careful to avoid getting water into the crown of the orchid (the center top where the leaves and flowers attach). If you do get water in this area, gently turn the pot upside to the side and upside down and let as much of the water drain away as possible. Crown rot is often lethal and happens when water gathers for long periods in the tight sections where leaves connect to the overall orchid. This is especially common with Moth orchids as their leaves curve deeply where they attach to stems and water can easily be trapped. There is no need to “mist” your orchids. This invariably leads to crown rot for those who are inexperienced with orchids and their watering needs. DO NOT use an ICE CUBE to water your orchids. This can cause another type of “burn” and it will NOT adequately water the orchid. This is nothing more than a silly advertising ploy to make you think caring for orchids is easy. They are – IF you take the time to remove them from the “death swaddle” and water them properly.
If you are experiencing massive leaf dry up and dropping after successfully cleaning it up, one of these may be the problem.
- Plant was allowed to dry out too much in the past. While repotting should help if there are good roots left when you repot, sometimes the damage continues for a time – and sometimes it is fatal. As long as you have any roots alive, there is some hope that the plant may begin anew – but it will be hard. Visit some of the sites in Part 3 – or just let the plant go.
- Overwatering. This is a big killer of home orchids. If they were “death swaddled” too long, they just may not recover. If you know you are not overwatering, their early beginnings are likely the issue. Again – read up and decide if it is worth your time to help the plant recover. I’ve had plants that were down to one leaf and, with lots of care, they have rebounded beautifully.
- If lots of roots had to be cut away during your repot, the plant may be simply trimming itself back to what the existing roots can support. Give it some time to see if it will recover.
- Plant was “starved” when you got it and the repot is not giving it enough food to recover. Get an orchid fertilizer, dilute it by twice the normal amount (since your potting soil is new it has some nutrients) and feed with every other watering.
- Too hot/too cold/too much light/too little light. Best place for orchids in a home or office is in front of an eastern or western-facing window. A little direct sun indoors is best. Orchids cannot exist in darkness. Although you can move a blooming orchid to an interior area to enjoy the blooms for awhile, they must be put back where they can get sunlight or they cannot produce good leaf growth (which leads to good flower spires). Orchids like air circulation but not cold or hot drafts. If your window area is overly “stagnant”, put a little fan nearby that you can turn on to circulate the air. This is helpful for most house plants and especially orchids. NEVER put your orchid in an area with a warm downdraft. Your soil will dry out way too fast and you may discover the issue too late. If you have VERY cold winters – and especially if you do not have energy efficient windows – check your orchid space temperature during the day and at night. Most orchids like 60-85 degree temperatures. Below or above those temperatures will impact leaf and spire growth, and your watering schedule.
Really Serious Issues
If any of the following are true of your orchid, stop reading now and go online to search on common root diseases for orchids and be sure to move the sick orchid away from other orchids you may own. You may be able to save your orchid, but these symptoms indicate an issue beyond the scope of this posting. I’ve provided a list of resources at the close of this post.
- Small stripes and spots all over the surface of the roots. These will not be minor looking – they will look nasty. Likely a viral disease and no cure.
- VERY soft roots that when touched an “ulcer” occurs from which liquid flows out. This is typically going to indicate a bacterial infection and CAN be cured. You will need a fungicide and you need to move quickly and follow all instructions on the fungicide.
- Weird little fuzzy or colorful growths on the roots (sometimes yellowish or pink). Likely a fungal disease. Again, your orchid CAN recover from this, but it requires your immediate action.
- Insects. These are usually something that has come along for the ride with your new plant. Folks who are lucky enough to put their orchids outside throughout parts of the year may also have some issues. Again, research online to find out what to do about different kinds of bugs.