How to Fix An Orchid

This is a post about keeping orchids alive. I was going to draw a cartoon of the grim reaper in bright green gardening gloves walking away in sadness after inadvertently killing his new orchid, but figured the dying orchid and his last words of "Et tu Brutus?" would be confusing to some. I would say "Get it? The orchid is using botanical latin! The grim reaper said "I'm sick of taking work home with me!" But the joke would fall flat after hours spent over a silly cartoon. Besides, isn't this picture of my blooming Epicyclia prettier?


Derek Powazek of Plantgasm fame recently posted about orchids too, and explained how buying them out of bloom is an affordable and rewarding way to start a collection. It's true! He then asked readers about their own experience in getting orchids to bloom.

This reminded me of all the times that I've been asked questions about orchids by befuddled coworkers, friends and milkmen (I made 'milkmen' up) and I decided that it was high time I answered these questions for anyone else who was wondering why their orchid is black and mushy. (Here's a hint: It's dead.) Here is a short list of questions that I've been asked about orchids thus far, along with some answers.

My Orchid Has Crusty Spots
This is scale insect, a problem I'm dealing with myself at the moment. Scale is best prevented by keeping the orchid healthy. Check every nook and cranny for juvenile 'crawlers' that like to hide under the leaves and wedge themselves in leaf axils and behind the sheaths of pseudobulbs and stems. Then thoroughly scrub the leaves with a cotton swab or toothbrush dipped in rubbing alcohol. Spraying the entire plant with horticultural oil is effective in severe infestations. Dispose of badly affected plants before they can contaminate your collection.

My Orchid's Flower Stalk is Broken
Fear not! Not only will the plant be fine, you might even see a new bloom on moth orchids. For example when I won a box of moth orchids from Costa Farms and #Gardenchat, each of the flower stalks were damaged and broken off. With the exception of one, all of them have put out new bloom spikes to continue the display. If you leave the stalk after blooming, you might even be pleasantly surprised by the arrival of a baby orchid, or keiki, on the stem that can be potted up and grown on as a new plant.

My Orchid Has Yellow Leaves
This could be caused by one of a few things. It could mean that the orchid isn't getting enough fertilizer, or it could mean that it's getting too much light. Examine the plant and it's environment for clues as to why your orchid is under the weather. Look for pests, rotted roots, salt buildup on the container and discolored areas caused by disease. Also ensure that your orchid is in the right environment. Cattleyas like direct sunlight, while a Phalaenopsis does not.This Oncidium 'Sherry Baby' has yellow leaves but is still healthy.

My Orchids are Wrinkly
This is either caused by overwatering or underwatering. Phalaenopsis leaves respond by becoming limp and wrinkled, and orchids with pseudobulbs like Oncidiums and Cattleyas react with shriveled pseudobulbs and pleated leaves. So how often should you water the orchid? Generally speaking, you should allow the medium to dry out before giving it a good drench. If the orchid is planted in spaghnum moss it will require less water since the moss acts like a sponge. If you're using a mix of fir bark and other ingredients, you will have to water more often since the bark drains easily. 

My Orchid Won't Bloom
This could be caused by one of a few things. First off, when was the last time it's bloomed? If it has been under a year since it last bloomed, try to be patient and wait a bit longer. If you've been patient and the stubborn thing still refuses to bloom for you, make sure that you aren't providing too much fertilizer, shade, or water. Many orchids prefer to rest after blooming or during what would naturally be their dry season, so will require less water during that time. If your orchid is putting out new leaves or roots, it just means that it will be healthier in the long term!

I'm not an expert on orchids, but this is what I've learned from my own experiences and by sticking my head in the books a little too much for my own good. Maybe I should stick to cartooning. Anyways, it's not the end of the world if your orchid dies, even if it gets all melodramatic on you. At the very least, you learned valuable lessons on how to take care of your next orchid!

The orchids pictured here are blooming right now despite the fact that they were infested with scale insects and have wrinkled leaves and pseudobulbs from too many missed waterings. Orchids are troopers.

Epicyclia 'Serena O'Neill'
Oncidium variocosum?

(The Oncidium 'Sherry Baby' isn't pictured since the flowers haven't yet opened.)

9 comments:

  1. Good advice - I often think the grim reaper is stalking my orchids. I find mine do best when basically ignored. I thought you had to cut off the flower stalk and was just about to cut mine off - I will leave in now in the hope that I get a new plant. I am never quite sure when they are supposed to flower and am always pleasantly surprised when they do.... They definitely have the control

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  2. that's great. a neighbor cat recently jumped into my window & broke the stalk to one of mine. so, here's hoping.

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  3. Just make sure the orchid is a Phalaenopsis or moth orchid before you get your hopes up! Those are the ones that put out new growth on damaged bloom spikes.

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  4. would like info on epiphyllum orchid

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  5. Anonymous: Do you mean the Epidendrum 'Butterfly Kisses' in the sixth pic? What would you like to know?

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  6. I was so excited to receive my first bunch of orchids, funny thing was, I was so excited and watered so much they all crumpled and looked so dead. I wanted to kick myself, I also didn't want all the people who had gifted them to me to know I had bungled it that badly. So, I pitched them besides the garage and broke the pots and forgot about them.
    We pulled up the driveway about 6 months later, and without my loving care, there were the orchids blooming and beautiful. The occasional watering they received from the sprinkler and the California sun but not too much had worked the magic I could not. Needless to say, I take all the credit, but I don't touch them.

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  7. I have a mini phal with the bloom has come off the spike, but half way up is a leaf growing, when will I see the baby roots?

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  8. uhm, I accidentally watered my orchid with vodka...my roommate had a water bottle filled with it and i thought it was normal water. the leaves are still grean and appear to be healthy but the stalk is blownish yellow and the plant is giving off a strange smell. is the plant a lost cause or can this be fixed?

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  9. My orchid's stem broke can I help it?

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Please feel free to share your questions, ideas and suggestions!