Signs your Phalaenopsis Orchid is Not Doing Well Telltale signs your orchid is in need of help

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Phalaenopsis Leaf Damage

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From dehydration & bad roots, to spotted or leathery leaves; if you’re having troubles with your orchid, the first step to solving it the problem is identifying it. So let’s dive in to to the many signs of a distressed orchid:

Discolored Spots, Damage, or Pits on a Phalaenopsis Leaf

Phals are tropical plants so they are used to operating in a relatively narrow range of temperatures. Leaf damage can come from 3 main things: cold damage, heat damage (generally not from too much light but instead from inferred waves from direct sun), and virus-related damage.

Heat Damage – Burnt Phal Leaves

Heat damage is the easiest to identify – it happens during high temps or from direct sun, and if it’s the latter the symptom is a giant white (or black) spot of dead tissue. Heat damage is irreversible. If your phal gets heat damage, hopefully it’s not bad enough to kill the plant, and it only affects a section of the leaf or top leaves. If you start to see yellow stippling on the surface of your phal’s leaf and it’s growing near a bright window where sun is in contact with the leaf – move it. All it takes is a hot day, or a very bright day to scorch the leaf.

Cold Damage – Orchids & Fungus

People are warned not to water in the evening specifically because of cold-related damage, but Phals can suffer from cold damage even if they’re not wet. To prevent cold damage, keep your orchids away from open windows in the fall, and avoid letting your grow area temps go below 16C. You might be okay with temps down to 13-14C briefly during shipping, but don’t grow them this cold.

A phal can experience two types of cold damage:

  1. Fungal Infection – this is more of an educated guess than proven fact, but I’ve heard it discussed multiple times. It’s believed that many phals have or carry a Taiwan form of micro fungus (whatever the hell that is) and when the temperatures go too low, the fungus is able to overtake or damage the plant. This results in yellow spots, or necrotic tissue. It also looks similar to viral damage, but I haven’t managed to find clarity on the details. The takeaway is this: cool temps can result in yellow or black spots on your phal – and the spots begin within the leaf and can spread quickly. If you’re seeing this problem get your plant to a warmer place, isolate it away from other plants (as it’s reported to spread quickly across a collection) and if possible use a systemic fungicide such as Phyton27. Also, be sure to keep your phalaenopsis away from open windows…if it’s fall or winter and you have a window open a crack, a sub-zero night can create drafts across your plant, quickly killing the tissue – THAT type of damage looks a bit different;
    *For more information about this micro fungus, click here.
  2. Mesophyll Cell Collapse caused by cold air or cold water on the leaves. The condition is quite common in the fall as temperatures drop, especially in the evenings – but symptoms of damage may not be visible for weeks after the drop in temperature happened. The American Orchid Society has a detailed page on the topic, so go there and read their info. The takeaway is this: water should be above above 50° F (10° C), and ideally within 25° F (4° C)  of the leaf temperature. Keep plants away from open windows in the fall, and if you have your plants outside, be very careful about seasonal changes. Bring plants in if the temps are expected to go below 15C…just to be safe.


Images of Phalaenopsis Leaf Damage – Mesophyll Cell Collapse
(possibly caused by cold damge, microfungus or viral infection)

Phalaenopis gigantea - new leaf
Phalaenopis no name
Phalaenopis stuariana - old leaf


Lack of Water – Phalaenopsis Symptoms

In the home, the main reason plants die quickly is because they’re not hydrated. Phalaenopsis can suffer dehydration from either under-watering or over-watering (which can kill the roots). A lot of online resources on ‘how to grow phals’ are geared toward people who have greenhouses or who live in humid areas. If you live a dry climate (under 60% humidity) like I do, then you need to pay close attention to the below water-related issues. It’s good to know: lack of water will likely affect our plants more drastically than someone who lives in an ‘ideal orchid climate’.

Does this sound like your orchid? Then read:

Signs & Symptoms of a Dehydrated Phalaenopsis – Wrinkled Leaves & Roots

Your Orchid is not a cactus – don’t grow your orchid like it is one! A lot of online sites stress about the importance of “not over watering”, but if you’re watering once a week, you’ve got to make sure your plant is doing well and getting sufficient water in the first place or it’s just going to die a slower death. I sometimes have to water two (occasionally three times in a week)! Over watering is less likely to happen if you have the proper medium — you can read more about proper potting and watering methods here.


Light Related Phalaenopsis Issues

If your watering is good but your phal still isn’t actively growing your next challenge may be light! A lot of online resources deem phalaenopsis as ‘low light’ plants. The problem with this is our understanding of “bright” vs. “low light” because our eyes can see in very low light.

Let’s say for example, that you’re in a basement with some overhead potlights. That light illuminates the room and appears to be “low light”, but it’s actually SO LOW that your phal would die for sure, but that process would take months, or up to a year before it eventually bites the dust. When considering an orchid’s need for “low light”, we need to beware that this is actually quite bright by our visible light standards.

Looking for Tips on Orchids & Light? Then read:

Is your Phalaenopsis Orchid is getting Enough Light?