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Orchid care: soak it back to life

Do you have a much-loved orchid that’s not doing very well — and you can’t remember the last time it flowered? If your orchid’s leaves are leathery, floppy, and not firm enough to resist when you (gently) bend them backwards, we hate to say it, but it’s likely dehydrated. And, if your baby has withered, leathery roots, well, that’s even more confirmation. Sorry!

Orchid dehydration can manifest in more subtle ways, too — from small leaves to small bloom stems with just a few flowers, or no bloom stems at all!

Careful and consistent watering, plus light fertilizer may be enough to revive your plant. But, if that doesn’t do the trick — there’s a simple soaking method you can use to revive your orchid. We promise.

This Method Works Wonders

Orchids can live for decades, but for various reasons, lots of folks have trouble keeping them alive for more than a couple of years. This can even happen to the green thumbs among us, so what gives?

The answer: you may have fallen into a trap that many plant parents do — being scared to overwater your orchid. And in the process, you’ve been slowly and completely inadvertently causing your plant to die of thirst.

But fear not! After much research, we’ve come across a method for rehydrating orchids. And we promise you, it truly works wonders. Here it is, in six steps.

Soaking Method for Rehydrating and Reviving Orchids

Step one: unpot your orchid
Gently remove all potting material from your orchid’s roots. You’ll likely come across some bits that cling tightly to its roots. It’s okay to leave those for now, the next step will help you remove them more easily.

Remove Orchid Potting

If you come across a moss core at the centre of the orchid, like the one below, remove it. This is the plug the orchid was started in and now is just decomposing, compressing, and suffocating your orchid.

Orchid Moss Core

Step two: rinse the roots
This step will help release stubborn bits of stuck-on potting medium and reveal healthy roots (bright green), as well as dead roots (brown and leathery).

Important! As you rinse, avoid splashing water onto the orchid’s leaves and crown (where the leaves sprout from). The nooks and crannies in this area can hold water and result in rotting.

Before + After Orchid Roots Rinsed

Step three: prune the roots
In this step, you’ll remove any dead and decaying roots you discover in the rinsing step. These roots can no longer absorb nutrients for the plant, and, even worse, invite bacteria and mold into the root system.
Living roots are firm and bright green after they are rinsed. Dead roots are brown, leathery, or mushy.

You may find roots that look between alive and dead — pale green or yellow. If they’re firm, they’re healthy enough to keep. But roots that feel mushy should be cut off. Alternatively, you can also peel off the mushy velamen (sheath around the root) and keep the real root (called a stele, looks like a thin wire). It’s likely the stele is alive and can absorb nutrients once exposed.

You may also find roots that are dead at the top but healthy below. This happens when the velamen has decayed in a section, but the stele can still absorb water and nutrients. In this case, we suggest you leave these roots, if your orchid doesn’t have a strong root system. But, if your orchid has lots of good roots — as in either of the “healthy” images below, you might want to trim off partially-decayed roots.

Orchid Root Health

Step four: Remove bloom stem
If your orchid’s bloom stem is dry and dead, definitely cut it off. If the bloom stem is alive, but your orchid is struggling to survive, we also recommend you trim it off.

The thing is, a struggling orchid will put all its energy into flowering — even if it’s about to die. And in this rehydrating process, we really want your plant 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’re soaking it for a bit of a spa treatment, you can leave the bloom stem on, it’s okay.)

Quick trimming tip: cut above the second node from the base of the stem (shown below). The node seals off to keep infections from reaching the ‘heart’ of the plant.

Where to cut an orchid bloom stem

Step five: tea/water bath
This is where the hydration magic happens! To keep it simple, fill a glazed or plastic orchid pot halfway with room- temperature filtered or distilled water. (Use a glazed or plastic pot, as a permeable terra cotta pot will absorb/release the bathwater. Not what you want.)

Orchid Soaking Method ideal water level

To kick it up a notch, steep a plain black tea bag (100% unflavoured black tea) in the water for ten minutes. Why black tea? Glad you asked. Black tea is slightly acidic (which orchids love) and contains a little nitrogen, which can provide a nutrition boost for your orchid. Nice.

Orchid Tea Bath

Next, pop your orchid into its bath. Make sure the crown is out of the water.

You might find your orchid is a bit floppy, now it doesn’t have anything solid to hang onto, root-wise. Do your best to build it a gentle support system. We used three elastics and a bloom stake to support ours (see below).

Propping up Orchid

Step six: alternate soaking and drying
Here’s the thing. Your orchid’s roots will not (yet) be happy to live in water all the time. And as you know, too much water equals root rot. So, you’ll need to develop a system that alternates soaking the roots with letting them dry out completely. You could start by soaking your orchid during the day, and drying the roots completely overnight (in a dry pot).

Be sure to use fresh water every day — or at least, every other day — to reduce bacteria. And, remember to wash your orchid pot with mild dish soap before you add fresh water.

Keep an eye on your orchid’s roots throughout the process. If you notice roots becoming mushy or developing white mold, it helps to extend the soak/dry times (or just the dry times). Perhaps soak your orchid for 24 hours then let it dry for 24 hours — and see if that improves things.

If you need to fight off white mold, use 3% hydrogen peroxide — thoroughly spritz the roots to kill off bacteria and mold. Let the roots dry completely after you spray them.

In the soaking process, you may loose some roots that are unhappy sitting in water. But, not to worry — new roots will grow in their place that LOVE water. Orchids have an amazing ability to adapt to varying levels of humidity (water = 100% humidity).

But. Orchids adjust slowly. The drying periods are super important, to give the orchid some periods of normalcy to help make the change in environment less drastic.

What’s next? Repotting and other questions
How long should I use the soaking method?
Look for signs of improvement — leaves perking up/plumping up, and new root and leaf growth. If your orchid is seriously dehydrated, it could be a month before you see positive leaf change, and several more months before you see a new leaf begin to emerge. Patience!

How do I re-pot my orchid?
Once your orchid is healthy and hydrated again, if you want to pot it back into bark (for example) you’ll need to adjust it slowly back to a dry environment by extending its dry periods and gradually reducing its soaking water level (down to just an inch of water).

Alternatively, you could continue to extend your orchid’s soaking time, and adapt it toward a hydroponic or semi-hydroponic lifestyle.

If you’d like to try a semi-hydroponic set up, consider using LECA beads and this method developed by Michael from Michael’s Orchids (a terrific resource for orchid care).

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