‘Best’ tip to tell if orchids are over or underwatered – ‘key signs’

Orchids: Expert shares tips for looking after plant

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An orchid’s bright, shiny leaves are just as important to the orchid’s beauty as the flowers. Firm, green leaves are a sign of a healthy orchid. An unhealthy orchid’s leaves signal that there is a problem. Orchid leaves should be upright, stiff and bright green. If your orchid’s leaves are leathery and limp there is a watering problem. Full-time gardeners and qualified horticulturalist Mark Bennett of Gardener Report has shared the differences between an overwatered and underwatered orchid and how to fix these houseplants that have fallen victim to bad watering conditions.

He explained: “The best way to tell if your orchid is over or underwatered is by looking at the roots. Underwatered orchid roots turn grey and shrivel in appearance, whereas overwatered orchid roots turn brown, soft and mushy, with a rotting appearance and have an unpleasant smell.”

How to tell if an orchids is overwatered 

According to Mark, the symptoms of an overwatered orchid are that the roots are brown, soft and mushy with a bad smell, the leaves turn yellow and brown with a wilting appearance. 

He said: “With consistent overwatering the roots turn from brown and mushy to shrivelled and papery white, which indicates the roots have died back. The buds and flowers may also fall off.

“There is a lot of overlap between the symptoms of overwatered and under watered orchids, so the key way to tell whether your orchid is overwatered rather than underwatered is to look at the roots and feel the potting medium.”

When orchid roots are in overwatered or boggy soil, they develop root rot and fungal diseases, which turns the roots brown and soft with a rotting appearance and a bad smell.

If the orchid’s roots are dying then they can no longer uptake water or nutrients to transport around the plant to the flowers, stems and leaves which causes the leaves to turn yellow and wilt with a dying appearance. The leaves often turn yellow with brown spots, which usually indicates fungal disease, as a result of overwatering.

How to fix overwatered orchids

To fix overwatered orchids, gardeners should reduce how often they water their houseplant to about once every seven days, urged the expert. He said: “The potting medium should dry out slightly between each bout of watering. 

“Once the top inch of the potting medium feels dry, give the orchid a generous soak. This soak and dry cycle of watering replicates the conditions in its native environment and meets the orchid’s water requirements, without risking root rot or fungal disease.”

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Gardeners should also take the orchid out of its pot and inspect the roots. Roots that have just been watered are green and they should be slightly grey but yet still feel firm during their watering cycle. 

“If the roots are brown, smelly and clearly rotting, then snip the roots back with a sterile pair of pruners back to healthy growth or back to the base of the plant. Wipe the blades with a cloth soaked in disinfectant between each snip, to prevent potentially spreading fungal pathogens from diseased, rotting roots to roots that are otherwise healthy.”

The houseplant should also be repotted in a special orchid-based potting mix, said Mark. He explained: “Pine bark-based mediums are best for moth orchids as they absorb enough moisture from the orchid’s roots, yet create a porous well-draining soil structure to allow excess water to drain away easily. It is important to replace the potting medium if the roots are rotting.”

How to tell in an orchid is underwatered

The symptoms of an underwatered orchid is that the growth is stunted, leaves start to wrinkle with a wilting appearance, the flowers and flower buds drop off or do not develop at all and the orchid roots shrink, and turn white and papery.

Mark explained: “There is a lot of overlap between the symptoms of an overwatered and underwatered as both can cause the orchid leaves to turn yellow and wilt, as well as the buds and flower falling off.

“However the key sign between an underwatered and overwatered orchid is that underwatered orchid roots shrivel up, and turn papery but they do not turn brown or feel mushy or rotten.”

Therefore if the orchid roots have turned from a plump, firm appearance to a shrivelled appearance, but do not show any signs of rotting, turning brown or smelling foul, then the orchid is underwatered.

The gardening expert added: “Orchids store moisture in their roots, which is why they should feel firm if properly watered. An underwatered orchid draws upon the moisture reserves in the roots causing them to shrivel, which is why shrivelling, grey roots are usually the first sign of an underwatered orchid.”

How to fix underwatered orchids

To revive an underwatered orchid, give the orchid a good soak so that the potting medium is evenly moist. Mark advised placing the orchid in a container of water for 10 minutes, ensuring the roots and potting medium are submerged. He said: “If the orchid has been chronically underwatered, this is the best way of immediately hydrating and reviving the roots and ensuring the potting medium is able to absorb water. The roots should start to plump up and turn green.”

Misting an orchid’s underwatered leaves, stems and aerial roots is helpful as it will increase the humidity. Mist the leaves every day whilst the plant is visibly underwatered. The expert said: “Increasing the humidity with misting replicates the humid conditions of the orchid’s native environment to counteract dry indoor air and to stop the orchid losing moisture through the leaves. Or you can buy a plant humidifier which can benefit other indoor tropical houseplants.”

Gardeners should also snip away any roots that have turned hollow and papery with a sharp pair of pruners. Slightly underwatered orchid roots shrivel and turn grey, whereas dead roots are papery and white and do not recover. 

Mark noted: “Whilst not essential, it is best practice to snip these dead roots off as they do not support the orchid and it is best that they do not decay in the potting medium.”

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