If your orchid’s leaves are leathery, floppy, and not firm enough to resist bending backwards, your orchid is likely dehydrated. If you peak at the root system and see withered, leathery roots, that’s even more confirmation.
However, dehydration can manifest in more subtle ways as well: small leaves, small bloom stems with just a few blooms, or no bloom stems at all!
Consistent and careful watering and some light fertilizer may be enough to revive your plant, but if that doesn’t do the trick I’ve got a very simple and straightforward soaking method that will revive your orchid.
The best part? This method completely elementates the nagging worry that you may over- or underwater your orchid.
This Method Works Wonders
Last January, I resolved to save my dying orchid as part of my 2020 New Year’s resolution. The orchid was about two years old and had not bloomed since the day I bought it. What’s worse, its leaves were whitering like beef jerky and nothing I did made it happier!
I know orchids can live decades but for some reason I had trouble keeping them alive for more than three years. I’m generally a green thumb, so what gives?
The answer: I fell into a trap that many plant parents do — I was scared to over water my orchid. Inadvertently, I was slowly killing it.
I researched and researched and finally came across a method for rehydrating orchids by soaking them in water. Thinking, ‘what do I have to lose?’, I threw caution to the wind and sat my orchid in a bath of water. Who’s scared of over watering now? Not me.
I’ll share the nuances of the method below, but first I want to share the amazing results!
After a month, my orchid’s leaves started plumping and perking up. After five months the root system was strong and a brand new leaf emerged.
Unfortunately, I didn’t take a picture of my orchid in January but you can see a comparison of its progress after six months (July) and ten months (November) of using the soaking method.
WOW — right? And now, as of mid-December 2020, my orchid has a bloom stem a foot tall with five flower buds showing, and more on the way! I’ll finally get to see the gorgeous deep magenta flowers that seduced me into buying this orchid many years ago.
Without further ado, here are step-by-step instructions of the soaking method I followed with such success.
Soaking Method for Rehydrating and Reviving Orchids
1. Un-pot: Gently remove the potting material (e.g. moss or bark) from your orchid’s roots. You will likely come across some places where the roots cling on tightly to the potting medium. You can leave those bits for now, they will come off with more ease after the next step.
If you come across a moss core at the centre of the orchid, like the one depicted below, remove it. This was the little plug the orchid started in and at this point is just decomposing, compressing, and suffocating your orchid.
2. Rinse roots: Rinsing the roots serves two purposes: first, it will help release any bits of potting medium that are stuck on and, second, it will make healthy roots turn bright green and reveal dead roots that remain brown and leathery.
When rinsing roots, avoid splashing water onto the leaves and the crown of the plant (where the leaves sprout from). The nooks and crannies of this area can hold onto water and result in rotting.
3. Prune roots: Remove any dead and decaying roots. These roots are no longer absorbing nutrients for the orchid and will invite bacteria and mold to the root system.
Alive roots are firm and bright green after they are rinsed, while dead roots are brown, leathery, or mushy.
Sometimes roots look somewhere in between alive and dead. You may come across some pale green or yellow roots. If they are firm, they are healthy enough to keep, but if these roots are mushy, cut them off or peel off the mushy velamen (the sheath around the orchid root) and keep the real root (called a stele, and which looks like a thin wire). The stele is likely alive and can continue absorbing nutrients for the orchid.
You may also find a root is dead at the top but healthy at the bottom. This happens when the velamen has decayed in a section, but the root inside (the stele) is still able to absorb water and nutrients. In this case, I suggest you leave these roots if your orchid doesn’t have a strong root system, but if your orchid has a lot of roots like the orchid in this demonstration, you may wish to cut off the half-decayed root.
4. Remove bloom stem: If the bloom stem is dry and dead, definitely cut it off! If the bloom stem is alive, cut it off if your orchid is at death’s door and struggling to survive.
A struggling orchid will put all of its energy into flowering even if it’s about to die, and in this process we really want the orchid to put its energy into its leaves and roots (the parts that will help keep it alive!).
If your orchid is pretty content and you are soaking it for a bit of a spa treatment, you may wish to leave the bloom stem on.
Cut above the second node from the base of the stem (depicted below). The node acts as a barrier that seals off to prevent infections from reaching the ‘heart’ of the plant.
5. Tea/Water Bath: The water bath is where the hydration magic happens! If you want to keep it super simple, pour some room temperature filtered or distilled water into a glazed or plastic orchid pot. Fill it up about half way.
Glazed or plastic pots are important because you don’t want an permeable terra cotta pot releasing the water it contains.
If you’re interested in kicking it up a notch, steep a plain black tea bag (anything that is 100% unflavored black tea) in the room temperature filtered or distilled water for ten minutes. Why black tea? The idea here is that black tea is slightly acidic (which orchids love) and contains a little nitrogen, which provides a little nutrition boost for your orchid. Basically the black tea serves as a little energy pick-me-up for your orchid.
Does this really work? I used black tea water for the first two or three weeks of the soaking method and it certainly didn’t harm my orchid! Whether it made a significant contribution to my orchid’s comeback I’m not sure.
After you sort out your water, pop your orchid into the bath. Make sure the crown of the orchid (the part where leaves are sprouting from) is suspended out of the water.
Now that your orchid doesn’t have anything solid to hang onto with its roots, you may find it wants to flop over in the pot. Do your best to MacGyver a gentle support system. I used three elastics and a bloom stake to support mine (see below).
6. Alternate soaking and drying: Your orchid’s roots are not (yet) adapted to living in water all the time. Too much water equals root rot. That’s why it’s important to alternate soaking the roots with allowing them to dry out completely.
A good pattern to start with is soaking during the day and allowing the roots to dry out completely overnight by placing your orchid in a dry orchid pot (or similar container).
Wake up –> create a fresh water bath –> bedtime –> dump out water and place it in a dry container –> repeat.
Fresh water each day — or every other day at most — is important to reduce bacteria. Plus, it’s important to wash the pot with mild dish soap each time before you add fresh water.
Keep an eye on your orchid’s roots as you repeat this process. If you notice roots going mushy or developing white mold it may help to extend the soak and dry times (or just the dry times). For instance you may choose to soak the orchid for 24 hours, then dry the orchid for 24 hours.
As well, you can fight off white mold with 3% hydrogen peroxide. Simply pour hydrogen peroxide into a spray bottle and thoroughly spritz the roots to kill off bacteria and mold. Let the roots dry completely after you spray them.
You may lose some roots in this process because they are unhappy sitting in water, but the aim here is that new roots will grow in their place that LOVE water. Orchids have an amazing ability to adapt their roots to varying levels of humidity (water being 100% humidity). An orchid will assess its environment and adjust itself to thrive in it. Yeah, orchids are pretty intelligent!
But there’s a catch. Orchids adjust slowly. The drying periods give the orchid some periods of normalcy that help make the change in environment less drastic.
What’s next? Repotting and other Questions
How long should I use this method?
Look for signs of improvement such as: leaves perking up, leaves plumping up, new growth of roots or leaves.
If your orchid is seriously dehydrated it could take a month before you see leaves perk up and several more months before you see a new leaf begin to emerge.
My orchid took about five months for a new leaf to grow. At that point the root system was strong and the orchid had enough leaves (four) that I felt it was healthy enough to be repotted — but — it had spent almost half a year adapting to soaking in water.
How do I re-pot my orchid?
Let’s use my orchid as a case study.
After five months soaking in water, if I wanted to pot it back into bark I would need to adjust it gradually back to that dry environment by extending the dry periods and gradually reducing the water level when it soaked (down to just an inch of water). After another half-year or so it would likely be ready for bark again.
Alternatively, I could continue gradually extending the time it spends in water to adapt it toward a hydroponic or semi-hydroponic lifestyle. That means sitting in water pretty much all the time.
My orchid ended up in dire straits when it lived in bark. Because bark obviously didn’t work with my super dry apartment or with my watering intuition, I decided to continue adapting it toward living in water.
A year after starting its rehydration journey, my orchid is about to bloom and has five very happy leaves. The two leaves it put out since I started soaking it are HUGE and glossy. All of these factors indicate that my orchid is very happy. I now have it soaking in water for three to four days and then let it dry out over night.
I see the roots on a daily basis and never have to worry about whether they are rotting or unhappy under the surface of bark or moss. The roots never mold anymore.
My orchid is so happy I think I will just continue the way I’m caring for it now. But, if you are interested in a semi-hydroponic set up, you can consider using LECA beads and following a method developed by Michael from Michael’s Orchids. Michael is a great resource for orchid care. In fact, Michael’s YouTube channel started me on the rehydrating method I just described!
Link to Michael’s Orchids semi-hydroponic system here.
Should I use orchid fertilizer?
I don’t recommend using fertilizer at first. After a couple months, you may wish to add a little orchid fertilizer to the water once a month, the build to once a week. Keep track of your orchid and see how it reacts to the regular fertilizer. The awesome thing about this method is it forces you to pay attention to your orchid every day and allows you to see the entire root system. After caring for your orchid this way for months, you’ll be acutely aware of its progress and day-to-day happiness.
What should I do with roots that look like this?
These silvery roots that wander into the sky are aerial roots. They are adapted to drawing moisture from the air and are in search of surfaces, like a tree, to cling to. If they feel firm, look healthy, and especially if they show signs of new growth like the green growth tip in the picture above, definitely leave them be! Not everyone likes the look of aerial roots, but they serve an important purpose for the orchid.