Feeling defeated when you look at your orchid? Wilting leaves are a worry but it’s not a sign that your orchid is beyond revival.
When you notice your orchid with limp leaves, curling at the tips or crinkling, it’s just a symptom of something gone wrong in the growing climate.
Spot it early enough and it can (usually) be fixed and easily.
Keep reading to discover why your orchid has wilting leaves, looks limp and (sometimes) devoid of life and get the solutions to revive it to its full bright green glory!
3 Quick Tips to Make Sure You Have the Right Growing Climate
1 – Double Up Your Plant Pots
The most frequent problem encountered with orchids grown indoors is watering. The soil either dries out too fast, or not quickly enough leaving the roots drowning in standing water.
Lack of drainage results in root rot. Lack of hydration causes the plant to go limp, lose color, and the roots to go crisp.
All the tell-tale signs of your plant’s health are buried beneath the surface and it’s this area you need to inspect when you see your orchid leaves wilting, losing color or acting out of the ordinary.
Unlike most houseplants that only require one plant pot, orchids are easier cared for when you use two. An outer decorative plant pot with drainage holes, and an interior slotted clear orchid plant pot.
The purpose of a transparent plant pot on the interior is to make it easy to inspect the roots.
Like many drooping plants, a wilting orchid is a sign of over or under-watering and the only way to know which your plant is affected by is by inspecting the roots.
If you don’t have the secondary transparent pot, it’s difficult to see what’s going on under the soil. With it, you can lift the interior pot out, look at the soil and instantly know by the shade of the roots whether it needs watering or if you need to hold off.
- Over-watered orchids will have roots that look and feel mushy, stringy and be black or brown.
- Under-watered roots are the opposite as they’ll feel crisp and be very brittle.
If you don’t have a two-tier plant pot, other ways to inspect the roots are to try to peek through a drainage hole, or to push your index finger into the soil to feel the moisture level.
2 – Potting Soil and Pot Sizes Influence the Watering Frequency Required
Potting soil for Orchids is never straight forward because there are as many as 30,000 varieties. They all prefer fast-draining soil, but how fast depends on the potting mix used.
A popular blend is a mixture of fir bark, perlite and sphagnum moss. Even if you buy branded potting soil specifically for orchids, the ratios used to mix the various parts will differ causing the drainage times to vary.
Determining when to water your orchid is trial and error. Most plant guides try to give a baseline of when to water, such as every few days and more in the summer, but the only way to know for sure is to monitor how fast your soil is draining.
The fastest draining mixtures are higher in fir bark as that is fast-draining, but most store-bought mixes also contain sphagnum moss, which holds water for longer. You do need both as you want water to run through the soil but slight moisture to be maintained by the sphagnum moss.
The soil will also need to be changed every one to two years. This is because the bark in the mix naturally breaks down over time. A good mix will have chunks of bark throughout.
When it thins out, it’s time to replace the soil or it will drain too fast leading to dehydration, which causes the leaves to go limp signifying it’s struggling to intake nutrients.
If you’re orchid is over one-year old and you’ve never changed the soil, that’s possibly why the orchid leaves are wilting!
Another factor to consider for how fast or slow your soil drains is the number of drainage holes your pot has. For an orchid in a planter under four inches, it should have eight drainage holes.
For a 6-inch planter, 12-drainage holes are preferred.
3 – Check the pH of Your Potting Soil
The recommended pH of the soil for orchids is between 5.5 and 6.5. Most fresh mixes will be within this range, but as the soil ages (and this is another reason you want to be renewing the soil every year or two) most of the organic matter in an orchid potting mix deteriorates with time.
The more bark degrades, the less acidity the soil has. When the acidity gets too low, the plant struggles to get the nutrients it needs from the soil.
Most types of sphagnum moss have an acidity of 4.4 on the pH scale making it an ideal soil amendment to increase the acidity of your soil. This will be needed over time as the bark in your soil degrades.
Depending on your growing medium’s acidity, you may want to try amending the pH first with a small amount of sphagnum moss, rather than re-potting with a completely new potting mix.
To Fix an Orchid with Wilting Leaves, Start with the Roots
When you see your orchid’s leaves go limp, wrinkle, curl or turn any other color but the bright green they should be, do not add more water.
It’s not advised to nurse the plant by misting the leaves either because if you need to hydrate the leaves by misting them, it means they aren’t getting sufficient nutrients from the plant roots. It essentially means the soil is redundant.
The leaves on an orchid can take nutrients from misting, but it’s still mostly increasing the humidity. The plant still needs sufficient nutrients from the soil.
Depending how long the leaves of your orchid have been wilting, it may have started to wrinkle, curl, and become discolored. Unhealthy leaves should still be left on the plant because both epiphyte, and Phalaenopsis orchids have air roots, sometimes referred to as aerial roots.
The unique root system Orchids have mean they can get nutrients from both the soil and through humidity in the air.
All too often, those unfamiliar with orchids and aerial roots water these plants without realizing the plant is getting water through above-the-pot roots. This is why it’s so easy to over-water an orchid.
When you spot the leaves wilting, shift your focus to the roots because this next part is what will help it recover.
Removing Damaged Orchid Roots
Take your orchid out of the planter, then using sharp pruners, gently remove the dead or unhealthy-looking roots.
Root rot is what you’re most likely to find on orchids with wilting leaves. It’s easily spotted by the dark brown color and mushy feel of the roots. Those are dead or dying and need to be removed.
In case of a fungal disease, removing these is advised to be done one at a time, wearing gloves, and sterilizing your pruners between each snip and letting them air dry before removing the next rotten root.
Sterility is the key for removing dead roots and you will need to sterilize the pot and use fresh growing potting mix too.
To snip damaged, dead, or dying roots from orchids, make the cut at the nearest living tissue above the rotten part. If it’s running the entire length of the root, cut it off at a 1/4 inch from the rhizome/crown.
This will take some time because of having to sterilize between cuts. Once there’s no damaged roots, replant in fresh potting mix, water it with tepid water until the water stops flowing, then put it back in its usual growing spot.
Crown rot is another common problem on orchids that’s evident when the crown turns black. It happens when the planter is left on a saucer with standing water.
The more water the soil soaks up, the less air there is. The early result is crown rot and it will cause wilting but you won’t need to cut the roots off yet.
To treat crown rot on an orchid, applying a tiny amount of full-strength (meaning regular 3% undiluted) hydrogen peroxide every two days is effective. When you apply it, it will bubble and fizz.
When it stops doing that, you can stop treating it. Rubbing a little cinnamon can help at this point as that’s a natural fungicide.
Repotting Orchids in Suitable Containers and Potting Mix
To make sure your plant has the best chance of recovery, start with the best practices of orchid care to avoid a repeat performance.
To help understand what’s needed for orchid plant care, it helps to think about how they would usually grow in the wild. That’s on the bark of trees, high up, where they get their nutrients from the rain and use the bark of trees for anchoring support.
It’s those conditions that you want to replicate in both the potting mix and the planter you use.
Orchid planters can be plastic, porous terracotta pots, ceramic and woven plastic mesh pots, similar to a plastic wastepaper basket. Before you settle on a type, consider the humidity levels of where you’re placing these.
In higher humidity conditions, mesh plastic containers can be the most beneficial because the mesh design helps more air to circulate and prevents the potting mix from drying out too fast.
Ceramic pots don’t always have drainage holes so you may still need to use another pot. With ceramic, the pots are only really for decoration.
The air and drainage aren’t sufficient and you’d need to remove the orchid from the container to water it, let the water run through then put it back in the container when it’s slightly moist. If you do choose a ceramic planter, pair it with a secondary pot.
Plastic pots are the most popular, in particular, the clear plastic plant pots even if it’s only as a secondary pot. You can use a transparent pot on its own.
The upside is you’ll always see the state of the roots, so you’ll be less likely to overwater it in the future. The main benefit is being able to inspect the roots but if you don’t want those as part of the display, pop a clear pot inside another planter.
Porous terracotta planters are the orchid enthusiast’s favorite, provided it has sufficient drainage holes and that’s because it allows air to pass through easily.
The size of the pot should be as close to the previous one as possible. If you’re unsure what size to get, the simplest approach is to get one that’s the same diameter as the base of the plant because orchids grow best in tight conditions. Very close to looking like the plant is root-bound.
A common mistake is to go too big on the plant pot. The result of a planter that’s too big for an orchid is too much potting mix, leading to it holding water for longer resulting in the risk of over-watering.
Fusarium Wilt is the Orchid’s Worst Enemy
If you’re convinced watering is not the cause of your orchid leaves wilting, and it is getting plenty of air circulation, then it leaves one last thing and that’s a fungal infection.
Fusarium wilt is a fungal infection that affects orchids. It starts with discoloration on one leaf. Symptoms of this disease are yellowing, shriveled and wrinkled leaves, wilting, and either poor blooming or no flowering at all.
This is because the fungus blocks the xylem vessels in plant leaves, which are responsible for carrying water from the roots. It is a soil-borne disease and there’s no chemical control for Fusarium.
Symptoms often starts on just one leaf turning yellow first. If left unchecked, you may notice what looks like a black rod shooting up the leaf from the base or black spots on any part of the leaf.
The only way to inspect for Fusarium wilt is to cut a rhizome and look for a band of purple on the outer layer. When you look at the stem, it should be white or very near to white.
The outer ring of the rhizome may be brown, but a healthy stem is white in the center. The outer ring can be a dark brown extending in towards a white center, but if you’re seeing any purple or a pinkish purple, it will be evident your orchid is infected with Fusarium wilt.
Heat stress, high humidity and heavy fertilization are known to contribute to Fusarium wilt, and it is more prone with orchids in the summer weather when orchids are more likely to be exposed to stress.
If you notice any yellowing leaves, use a pair of sharp pruners to snip at the base of the stem and look for a purple ring on the outer layer. This will spread so you will need to sterilize your pruners before using them again, even on the same plant.
It is possible to remove an infected rhizome and continue growing the healthy parts of the plant. Provided it’s caught early enough, an orchid can survive. If it’s left unchecked, the disease can kill an orchid in three to nine weeks.
If you suspect the wilting is not related to any watering issues, inspect each rhizome for signs of any purple or pinkish-purple discoloration and discard any that have it.
The healthy parts of the plant might survive by sterilizing it using a fungicide containing Thiophanate-Methyl then repotting in fresh soil and preferably a new planter, or thoroughly sterilizing the pot it was in before repotting it.
Growing up with a mom who filled her home (inside and out) with all sorts of plants, Lisa got her start in gardening at a young age. Living now on her own with a home and yard full of plants (including an indoor greenhouse), she shares all the gardening tips she’s gained over the years.
Friday 11th of February 2022
Thanks for all the good info!