Signs & Symptoms of a Dehydrated Phalaenopsis – Wrinkled Leaves & Roots And tips on reviving a dehydrated orchid

In Orchids
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So you think you might have some issues with your orchid, eh? WELCOME TO THE CLUB! It happens to all of at one point or another in our orchid life. Recognizing those signs and symptoms of a stressed plant are very important for your long-term success of growing orchids. Above all…feel no shame; it happens to all of us! If your plant has leaf spotting, it might not be related to dehydration, so check out this other post on signs your orchid isn’t doing well.

With that out of the way, let’s look at the 3 ways you can recognize a dehydrated phalaenopsis:

Symptom 1) Floppy Phalaenopsis Leaves, or Worse Shriveled Leaves

Well-hydrated Phalaenopsis have leaves that are firm and can support their own weight. Signs of under-watered leaves include: pale, leathery, or droopy leaves. In the worst cases of dehydration, the leaves can split in the middle (as the weight of the tip of the leaf cannot be supported by the turgor of the mid leaf). There is an exception which can happen when newly-forming leaves are reaching the end of their growth, and where the thin and soft leaf may not be able to support the weight of the leaf. This will resolve, but you may want to support the tip of the leaf (if the center starts to buckle from the weight of the rest of the leaf), and consider dosing with calcium in an effort to strengthen the leaf growth process. New leaves will finish filling out generally in a month or so.

If a plant has lost too much water and the leaves have drooped or shriveled heavily then the leaf will generally not regain their original plumpness or lift (even if you resolve the hydration issue). Future leaves will grow out firm and plump, provided the plant doesn’t become heavily dehydrated again.

Symptom 2) Wrinkled “Prune Finger” Phalaenopsis Roots

Dehydration starts to show up in aerial roots (the exposed roots that grow out of the pot or roots that grow from the stalk of the orchid) when they start to wrinkle. A hydrated Phalaenopsis should have roots that are round and plump, not shriveled and wrinkly.

Roots have four ‘phases’ of hydration:

1. When they’re dehydrated and the roots shrivel and look like ‘prune fingers’ (when your hands have been in water too long). This last phase of dehydration is a good indicator that you’re past-due for a good watering.
2. When they are dry and whitish-grey, and are in need of water.
3. When just watered, fully hydrated, and holding water they become a dark green colour.
4. When they’re happily hydrated and the roots are fat, round, and plump and in various between stages of green and white (in the pot, green-above the pot, white).

Your phalaenopsis roots will show signs of dehydration before the leaves will. If the roots on your plant are looking wrinkly, GET THEM WET! When I water, I spray all the leaves, and the roots. Again, for more information on how I water and for general care of phals read this post Phalaenopsis: Care, Culture and Tips to Keep Your Orchid Reblooming.

Symptom 3) Lack of Orchid Roots Altogether

When you’re buying a new Phal, take a look at the roots. If they’re in the substrate, gently try to lift the plant out of the pot and see what the roots look like (this is why clear/semi transparent pots are very helpful). The roots should be green or whitish (as mentioned above). A little shriveled is also okay, but they should generally look like green worms. Black or brown phalaenopsis roots are a sign of death or rot, and it’s important to recognize this because an orchid with rotted roots can be difficult to revive (taking a year or more to bring it back to blooming health).

If you’re new to growing orchids, I would not recommend buying an orchid that is lacking healthy roots; it becomes a long process that can be discouraging.

Cause: Phalaenopsis Root Rot

It’s possible that the largest killer of phals is dehydration as a result of root rot. People often assume that root rot happens when an orchid is over-watered. But that’s not entirely true…it’s a chicken or egg scenario. Did you over water? Or did you use the wrong media that didn’t allow you to water frequently? In nature, orchids grow in monsoon areas…they get drenched for weeks at a time; so it really doesn’t make sense that they can be “over watered”, right?

Orchid roots can rot if they are not provided enough airflow (and pathogenic bacteria grows and kills the roots). Root rot can happen if you let your orchid sit in stagnant water for too long, it can happen if the media is too dense and gets plugged when water logged, or it can happen if the potting mix is old and sour (decayed, rotten, acidic and ultimately particulate and packed tightly around the roots).

Often, when you buy a new orchid from a garden centre or big-box retailer (Walmart/Home Depot/etc) they’re potted in very-tightly packed sphagnum moss – that moss, when DRENCHED becomes a block of anaerobic conditions—so…did you over water? Or should you have repotted first?

But why would they plant orchids in sphagnum moss if when too wet, it causes rot?

  1. The gardening business in general tends to be a business of consumption—if your orchids live forever, you don’t come back to buy more, right? The demise of your plants are in the supplier’s and reseller’s best interest. But I prefer to think that the world isn’t that maniacal and it’s more about…
  2. Large-production greenhouses (where your big-box retailer orchid was produced) have MASSIVE automated systems; the plants are misted multiple times per day, they’re kept at optimum humidity, and the plants are surrounded by very heavy air flow. They are produced in conditions that are ideal for orchid growth and they’re never drenched under a tap. When you get them home, your conditions are different and much more harsh. Your home is dry, and water is less available, this is why you have to water heavily and freely to help the plant uptake water—and if you’re using tap water, you need to flush it often to prevent the buildup of minerals in the potting media. The first time you take your plant home and soak that sphagnum moss under the tap, it expands and absorbs all the water and immediately stops airflow in the middle of the root area—it only takes a few days for bacteria to start growing under these conditions, and your newly acquired plant risks root rot within the first week you’ve purchased it. Who knows, maybe that first heavy watering has already happened at the garden centre before you got it.

How to Prevent Over Watering a Phalaenopsis

For the above reasons, I always repot EVERY phalaenopsis the day I get it (even if it’s in bloom). Some people say you can lose a plant’s blooms to bud blast (a symptom a plant is under stress where they pop all the flowers off prematurely), but I’d rather risk losing the first set of blooms, rather than lose the whole plant. If bought it, it’s because I *really* like the flowers and I’d rather have it bloom again and again, rather than only see the flowers once. By the way, I also call bullshit on the bud-blast issue—of my over 100 Phalanenopsis plants, I’ve never had a plant bud blast, or die since I started practicing these care methods which includes immediately repotting new plants. If your plant suffers bud blast it’s likely because there are elements of its care that are out of line, not specifically that you repotted it.

How do you know if your Phalaenopsis is getting enough water?

One thing I’ve noticed with my plants is that when they’re well hydrated (especially the 2-3 days after I water), they almost appear to glow in the evening. This comes from a cell phenomenon where well-hydrated cells are swollen and reflect light. You’ll notice it on flowers more than you will on the leaves—you can check this for yourself. Take your cellphone, turn on the flashlight and shine it on the flower petals. As you move the light around and you’ll see sort of a giltter sparkle on the flowers. This will happen on leaves if they’re very hydrated too. This sounds silly, but to me this is the equivalence of an orchid smiling when it’s happy.

How do you Revive a Dehydrated Orchid?

Baby steps and consistency. Don’t put it in water culture (Unless it literally NO ROOTS and it’s a last ditch effort). Don’t water it more often. And don’t put it in a dark area of your home… an orchid that needs to recover needs: regular wet/dry cycles, moderately-bright light (light gives energy, energy makes roots), and consistent conditon that don’t continue to stress the plant. Use a good open bark media and top-layer it with a small amount of that water-retentive sphagnum moss; then, water the plant as the roots dry—as they get longer, you can decrease the frequency of watering because they’ll reach into the bark and stay humid longer.