"What's Wrong With My Orchid?"

I read this over and over in letters that are sent to me. Almost always, when your orchid is not behaving like you think it should, the problem usually is a result of how you are watering it or even the possibility of the type of water being used.

- - WATER - -

The water in my home is softened by a water softener, will this hurt my orchids?

That all depends on how the water was softened. If the softening was accomplished by an ion-exchange method there is no problem. However, if the water was softened using sodium (SALT), you do not want to use it on your orchids. Unfortunately, most home water softeners use sodium as the softening agent. The sodium water softener replaces the calcium and magnesium (two nutritional components needed by plants) with the sodium which is toxic to plants in the quantities produced. Plants watered with sodium softened water will start new growth and will grow them to two or three inches then stop growing. It can take less than six months to kill your orchids with sodium softened water. If you use bottled water on your orchids, you need to find out if the water has been softened, and if so, what method was used, sodium or ion-exchange.


Most people are used to growing plants in soil, not in bark and other media that orchids grow in or on. Because of the different potting media, beginners have to make a major adjustment in how they water.

Beginners will typically water their new orchid and, just hours later, the orchid potting media will look dry again. So they give it a little more water. The cycle continues and they end up over watering and drowning the plant.

Orchid media is made to quickly absorb water and then dry out. It is loose and allows oxygen to flow around the plant's roots which the roots need to function correctly. If the potting media is kept wet, the roots soon rot and the plant starts to wilt because it cannot absorb the water needed. When this happens the beginner usually adds still more water thinking the plant needs it.

What should I look for?

  1. Wilting

  2. Pseudobulbs (see How Orchids Grow) that should be plump are now shriveled and have deep furrows running lengthwise.

  3. Leaves like the Cattleya and Phalaenopsis start to curl, soften, and develop creases

  4. Leaves like the Miltonia and the Oncidium never expand and look pleated like an accordion.

  5. Blackened areas--especially around the bottom of the plant.

  6. Older leaves turn yellow and drop off.

  7. The media smells sour.

  8. If possible, gently remove the orchid from its pot enough to examine the roots. If the roots are dark and mushy, then the plant is most likely suffering from over watering.

What should I do?

By the time you notice that there is something wrong, the media has already started to decay and the plant has begun to loose its roots. You need to repot immediately and cut off all dead and decaying roots. Use a coarser grade of media since this will allow more rapid drying out. Since the plant probably has very few roots, support it with a stake.

If the plant has no (or very few) living roots left, you can try placing the orchid in a plastic bag. Loosely tie the bag closed. The bag will help the orchid from loosing more moisture by reducing evaporation. Place the bag in an area that only receives indirect light until you see new roots growing.
When you see the new roots, take the orchid out of the bag and place it on a humidity tray.

If your plant has black rot, treat it with a fungicide before repotting.

Be careful when you start to water again.


There are a few hobbyist's that have heard the words "don't over water" so often that they tend to under water. They will just mist the plants, only give them small amounts of water (not completely wetting the plant media), or water the poor thing infrequently treating it like cactus. Needless to say, all plants need sufficient water or they will die (Even cactus NEED to be watered or they will die too).

How do I know if I am under watering?

The sad thing about under watering is the symptoms are just about the same as they are when a plant is over watered. To determine if the problem is under watering or over watering, you need to know the past pattern of how the plant has been watered. However, if you gently remove your orchid from its pot enough to examine the roots you may be able to determin the problem: If the roots are firm, the problem is probably under watering. If the roots are dark and mushy, then the plant is most likely suffering from over watering.

  1. Your plants starts to wilt, but does not lose its roots like over watering causes.

  2. The thinner leaves on some orchids will pleat like an accordion as they develop. NOTE: Even after you have increased your watering the leaves that have pleated will not straighten out. New leaves will be normal.

  3. Your plant is weak and the leaves are limp.

What should I do?

  1. FIRST, make sure your plant is suffering from under watering and not over watering.

  2. If your plant is firm in its pot increase your watering, if you have been watering once a week increase it to twice a week.

  3. When you water, water thoroughly not just sprinkle.

  4. Misting does not take the place of watering.

  5. Always use warm (NOT HOT) water. Don't water your plants with cold water.

  6. Always water in the morning. Doing so allows the plant's leaves to dry before evening which will reduce the chance of rot.

General When to Water Guidelines
Always water using luke warm water, never cold water.

Water more often when:
  • The orchid is in a pot any size below 4"
  • The orchid is growing in a clay pot
  • The orchid is mounted or in a basket
  • The humidity is below 40%
  • Temperature is above 80 degrees and the orchid is exposed to direct sunlight
  • Air movement around the orchid is increased (promotes evaporation)
  • The orchid has thin leaves or growths

Water less often when:
  • It is cloudy for 3 consecutive days or more and
  • the orchid is not receiving direct sunlight
  • The daytime temperature is approximately 60 degrees or less
  • The orchid is in a 6" pot or larger
  • The orchid is in a plastic pot
  • There is very little air movement around the orchid
  • The humidity is 70% or higher
  • The orchid has thick leaves and growths

What orchids Need
Water | Light | Temperature | Fertilizer | Humidity | Air movement

Linda's Orchid Page http://orchidlady.com
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