Promoting root production on sick orchids

At some stage in your orchid hobby, you will come across a plant that has a diminished root system. This is something that seems to occur quite a lot with orchids sold through gardening stores, supermarkets etc. It can also happen to orchids that have been in your home for some months.

But how do you help your orchid grow new roots?

Sarcochylis Hartmanii
Dino is creating a new root – a really reassuring sign I am providing the right care for him.

In the last few months, I’ve taken on board two orchids that have suddenly started having root problems. One is an Oncidium type orchid and the other is a species orchid; Stanhopea tigrina. Stanhopea orchids are different to most other orchids, as their blooms actually grow from the bottom of their pots and so need to be grown in baskets. Both of these orchids had wrinkling pseudo-bulbs and limp leaves – an indication of dehydration or loss of roots.

A word of warning: helping an orchid to regrow its root system can be quite a lengthy process. You will require a lot of patience!

I’d advise un-potting your orchid if you think the root system has died. An indicator would be wrinkled leaves or pseudo-bulbs, or limp leaves, even after watering. Notice the media your orchid is growing in. If it smells of mushrooms, it needs to be replaced – quickly. Check for pests and cut away any roots that are mushy or black – they are dead and will cause more problems if not removed. Always use sterilised cutting tools.

I un-potted both the Oncidium type orchid and the Stanhopea. There were no pests or indications of rot or disease, which was a good start. Although both were in bark which hadn’t broken down, it had not been retaining enough water for them. The Oncidium type had lost 100% of its roots, whilst the Stanhopea lost 95%. At this point, you might think it isn’t worth saving them, but so long as the pseudo-bulbs are not completely desiccated, the plant has a chance.

What I do after cutting away dead roots and treating the plant with hydrogen peroxide 3% (just on the roots and base of the plant), is to try to provide it with humidity. I don’t mean steaming it in the shower or anything like that. The orchid is potted in a clear plastic pot that is not quite full of bark media, and then put into a ceramic pot for extra stability. Clear plastic pots are ideal for monitoring how well the orchids roots are developing. If your orchid has no roots, tether it to a stake to support it.

Having the plant set down within the plastic pots enables some humidity to form around the base of the orchid, and encourage root production. The orchids need to have temperatures of around 18-25c which helps by increasing the metabolism of the plant.

Before I potted the Stanhopea (above, left) in bark, I did prop him up in a plastic pot with a small quantity of water overnight to help try and hydrate him a little bit.

Stanhopea tigrina
Stanhopea tigrina propped on four bamboo skewers above a small quantity of water. One of his roots was long enough to reach the water and he was left overnight like this.

Providing daily misting around the roots helps to keep the humidity higher within the pot. Once a week, you could flush the pot through to help keep moisture levels up, but I find keeping the top inch of the media moist does work well.

Orchid roots
With daily misting, the orchid will start to produce new roots.

When the roots have established, you can start to provide them with a growth fertiliser, but I’d suggest adding at a reduced dose whilst the orchid is still recovering.

This process does take a long time, and you will need to ensure that your orchid is misted daily. Keep an eye on any developments, and hopefully, you will start to see your orchid recover. Trust me, it’s worth it!

Happy growing.

Clare

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