How to Revive a Dying Orchid


How to revive a dying orchid

The reason for orchids dying is because of overwatering, slow draining soils and a lack of oxygen around the roots. Orchids require the top inch of the growing medium to dry out between watering. In consistently damp soil orchids develop root rot with leaves turning yellow and dying back.

Orchids are epiphytes that require more oxygen around their roots then most plants, as well as bright, indirect light a temperature range of between 55°F (12°C) and 75°F (23°C), relatively humid conditions away from draughts and should only be watered when the top inch of the potting medium is dry, but the rest of the medium should not dry out completely.

Orchids often die because they are planted in a potting medium that retains too much moisture which causes the roots to rot and the leaves to turn yellow and die back.

Orchids should only be potted in pine bark or special orchid potting mixes, rather then moss or ordinary potting soil.

To revive dying orchids, it is important to create their optimal conditions by emulating some of the conditions in their native environment and by cutting back dying roots.

Reasons for Orchids Dying:Symptoms:
Overwatering, soil that retains too much moisture, pots without good drainage.Leaves and stems turning yellow and drooping. Roots turn brown, black and mushy often with a bad smell.
Sunburn (orchids require indirect light not full sun)Yellow or brown scorched leaves that eventually fall off.
Not watering often enough or watering too lightly.Orchid leaves drooping with a wrinkled appearance. Leaves turn yellow with severe dehydration. Roots turn thin, white and papery.
Too much fertilizer can burn roots. Orchids require special orchid fertilizer. Ordinary fertilizer is too strong.Roots can turn brown or black, leaves can turn floppy and sometimes turn yellow. Too much fertilizer can prevent orchids from blooming.
The orchid is stressed due to several factors such as a cold or hot temperatures, low humidity. Low light or full sun can both causes the buds to drop and the orchid to die.Buds dropping, yellow or brown wilting leaves, roots dying back.

Keep reading to learn the cause of your dying orchid and how to revive it…

Orchid Leaves and Stems Wilting, Turning Yellow (Overwatering)

Orchid leaves turning yellow due to overwatering.
Orchid leaves turning yellow due to overwatering.
  • Symptoms. Leaves and stems or the orchid wilting in appearance, turning yellow and dying back. Roots can appear yellow, brown or black with a mushy texture and a bad smell and eventually turn grey and paper.
  • Causes. Stem rot, or root rot caused by overhead watering, overwatering, potting soil that retains too much moisture or is too compacted for growing orchids (orchids require aerated soil). Cold temperatures lower then 55°F (12°C) also cause orchids to turn yellow.

Most species of houseplant orchids are either epiphytes (which means they are specially adapted to growing on trees and the roots absorb water vapor from the air around them rather then uptake water from soil) or they grow in loose, gravelly aggregate on the ground with very quick drainage, so that their roots are not sat in standing water or even damp soil.

So to avoid your orchid turning yellow, drooping and dying and to grow orchids successfully, it is important to recreate some of the conditions of their natural environment with an emphasis on good drainage, watering correctly and bright, indirect light levels.

The reason orchids turn yellow is because of overwatering and slow draining soils. Orchids require the soil to dry out between bouts of watering. If the soil is constantly damp then the orchid leaves and stems turn yellow, droop down and the orchid dies back.

Yellow orchid leaves indicate that the roots are not in a condition to transport water or nutrients around the orchid due to root rot or excess moisture in the soil has excluded oxygen which required for root respiration so that the roots can function properly.

Overwatered orchid roots can appear yellow, brown or black and have a mushy texture a often a bad smell. Eventually the roots die back due to root rot and appear gray, thin and papery. This is in contrast to healthy orchid roots which are green or light gray and have a firm feel.

Healthy orchid roots are green (or light gray) and feel plump.
Healthy orchid roots are green (or light gray) and feel plump.

Typically orchids should be watered once every 7 days or so in Spring and Summer and once every 10-14 days in Fall and Winter to meet the watering requirements yet also avoid root rot.

(Read my article to learn how often to water orchids at different times of the year and in different climates).

To avoid yellow orchid leaves it is important to plant orchids in the appropriate pine bark potting medium as ordinary potting soil or even peat moss retains too much moisture for orchids to tolerate and lacks the aerated, porous structure for oxygen to reach the the orchids roots so they can respire and function properly.

So even if you water infrequently the orchid leaves and stems can still turn yellow if they are in potting soil that retains too much moisture or the particle size of the soil is too small which causes a lack of oxygen around the roots.

It is also worth noting that orchids should ideally be repotted with a new potting medium once every 2 or 3 years.

This is because orchids require lots of oxygen around the roots for efficient root respiration.

If the potting medium starts to decay (into a compost like consistency) over 2 years or so, the the size of the pores and amount of air around the roots decreases which causes the roots to suffocate and the orchid turns yellow and dies back.

Orchids can also turn yellow if they are planted in pots without drainage holes in the base or because of saucers and trays underneath the pots causing water to pool around the bottom of the pot which results consistently damp pitting mix around the roots, increasing the risk for root rot and other fungal disease that cause the leaves of orchids to turn yellow.

Good drainage is imperative to growing orchids, so always plant them in pots with holes in the base that allow water to drain freely after watering.

(Read my article, choosing the best pots for growing orchids for more tips).

It should be noted that even if orchids have yellow leaves and some roots appear to be rotting, the orchid can still revive if there are at least some roots that are relatively healthy…

Crown Rot Causing Yellow Leaves and Stems

It should also be noted that it is best practice to water orchids at the soil level (or in a basin) and not watering overhead onto the leaves and stems

Orchid leaves can form a funnel shape that encourages water to pool on the crown of the plant (rather then drain off into the soil) which can cause crown rot due to stagnant water.

Crown rot can cause the leaves and stem of the orchid to turn yellow and eventually then turn brown or black, causing the orchid to die back.

How to Revive Orchids With Wilting, Yellow Leaves and Stems from Overwatering

  • The first step is to scale back how often you water the orchid and let the soil dry out. As a general rule orchids should be watered once every 7 days but you should always wait for the top inch or so of the potting medium to feel dry before watering again, which can vary according to your climate, the type of potting medium and the size of the pot. (Read my article on watering orchids for more details).
  • Ensure that your orchid is planted a potting mix that is specifically formulated for growing orchids. Pine bark based mix works best due to its aerated structure and good drainage which emulates the soil conditions of the orchids native environment. If your orchid is planted in ordinary potting soil or moss then it retains too much moisture around the roots of the orchid which interferes with the orchids ability to uptake nutrients and water which causes the leaves to turn yellow and the plant to die back, so repot your orchid to a special orchid potting mix of pine bark (rather then moss) to prevent root rot.
  • Inspect the roots for signs of disease. Healthy orchids roots normally appear green to light gray depending on how recently they have been watered, and typically feel plump and firm. If your orchids roots are mushy, brown or black often with a bad smell then this indicates disease or stress from a lack of oxygen around the roots and you should cut back the unhealthy roots.
  • Snip back any diseased looking unhealthy roots back to healthy growth. Use a sterile pair of pruners or scissors and cut back any roots that appear brown, black or mushy as these roots can no longer transport water or nutrients and can cause your orchid to decline further if they are not removed. Wipe the blades of your pruners with alcohol gel or disinfectant in between every cut to prevent, potentially spreading fungal pathogens to otherwise healthy tissue. Cut diseased roots back to healthy growth or all the way back to the base if necessary.
  • If there are some healthy, living, green (or light grey) roots remaining then the orchid can still be revived. Snipping of the diseased or rotten roots can seem fairly drastic but orchids are hardier then their perceived reputation when it comes to reviving and growing back.
  • If the stems are yellow cut them back to healthy growth even if it means cutting the stem back to the base of the orchid. This helps to prevent the spread of disease and if the stem is yellow it no longer functions. Cutting back helps to stimulate the growth of new stems.
  • Yellow leaves often die back but do not force any yellow leaves off if they are still attached. Forcing the leaves off can damage the orchid, however they will likely turn brown and fall of eventually before any new leaves can emerge.
  • Replant your orchid into new suitable potting medium such as pine bark or a specially formulated orchid mix. Pine bark potting mediums have the prefect aerated structure which facilitates root respiration and good drainage for your orchid to revive. Do not use old potting medium as it may be host to fungal disease pathogens that cause disease.
  • Give the orchid a good soak after repotting to help mitigate transplant shock and keep the orchid in an area of bright indirect sun, preferably in relatively cool (not cold) temperatures for a week or so. The orchid can suffer some shock following removal of roots so it is important to keep any stress to a minimum. High temperatures and direct sun cause, increase the orchids demand for moisture at a time when the number of roots that uptake moisture has been reduced to help save the plant.
  • Keep the orchid in a temperature range of 55°F (12°C) at night and a maximum daytime temperature of 75°F (23°C), in indirect light and water when the top inch of the potting medium is dry (typically around every 7 days or so) with a good soak.
  • Mist the leaves with water every 2 or 3 days to maintain a humid micro-climate which replicates the humid conditions of the orchids native habitat. This also helps to reduce transpiration (water loss) from the leaves which important for to revive the orchid whilst it is growing new roots.

As long as there are some healthy green (or light grey) roots that feel firm and plump, there is a possibility the orchid can be saved.

Orchids are unusual in that the roots can even photosynthesize (usually exclusively the function of the leaves for most plants) which is how the orchid manages to produce energy and regrow even when the leaves are yellow and dying.

Clear plastic pots (rather then decorative pots) can improve the chances of your orchid reviving, as this allows light to reach the roots for photosynthesis in the absence of functioning, healthy leaves.

The amount of time it takes to revive varies depending on how severely the orchid was affect and how many roots were removed, but as long as you provide the right conditions for the orchid, you should eventually see some new leaves starting to form, from the base of the plant and new roots emerging over the next few weeks.

Watch this helpful YouTube video for a visual guide of you are unsure of anything:

Orchid Leaves Yellow or Brown Because of Sunburn

  • Symptoms. Leaves of the orchid turning yellow or brown with a scorched appearance. Leaves and flowers can also fall off due to stress.
  • Causes. Orchids require filtered light or bright, indirect light and can burn in full sun or intense sunshine.

In their native environment most orchids grow as epiphytes (which means they grow on other trees) so they are naturally adapted to growing in the shade away from full sun, but still in relatively bright light.

Therefore orchid leaves tend to be sensitive to the affects of direct sunlight, so you should always place orchids in an area of bright, indirect light or perhaps some filtered morning light, rather the full sun to replicate the conditions of their natural environment.

If the orchid is in too much sun, the leaves can scorch and turn yellow or brown depending on the severity of the sun burn.

Too much intense light can also contribute to drying out the orchid too quickly from both the leaves and the potting medium and cause the symptoms of drought stress.

Often the leaves turn yellow, die back and fall off. Unfortunately individual sun burnt leaves usually can not be saved but the orchid can still revive by growing new leaves.

How to Revive Orchids With Sun Burnt Yellow Leaves

  • Place your orchid in an area of bright, indirect light to reduce stress on the plant and prevent more damage. Orchids are adapted to the shade of the canopy so it is important to emulate these conditions when locating your orchids.
  • Allow any severely damaged leaves to dry up and fall off of their own accord. Sun burnt leaves eventually dry up and die back but removing them too early can damage the plant.
  • Ideally repot your orchid to a clear plastic pot. Orchids are usual in the plant world as their roots are capable of photosynthesizing and providing energy for the plant. This is not their primary function of course but placing orchid in clear pots so that roots have access to light is key to helping the orchid revive and growing new leaves.
  • The orchid should eventually start to grow new leaves (which are often every small) and with the appropriate good care (watering appropriately and ensuring orchids are in the correct temperature range) the orchid can start to revive.

It can take orchids a long time to revive when their leaves are burnt due to the fact that the leaves often drop off (which reduces the orchids ability to produce energy) and it takes a while for the orchid to grow new leaves. However with some patience orchids can eventually revive and flower again.

Orchids Dying From Drought (Drooping Leaves)

Roots turning white from severe dehydration.
Roots turning white from severe dehydration.
  • Symptoms. Roots appear shriveled, white and die back. Leaves droop downwards, loose their shape and feel floppy rather then firm. Leaves can also turn yellow and the flowers can drop off due to drought stress. Stem of the orchid can also turn brown and die back.
  • Causes. Not watering orchid often enough, watering too lightly, excess heat, low humidity and too much sun.

Orchids are usually at more risk of overwatering then underwatering due to their preference for good drainage and aerated, porous potting mediums.

However orchids can still suffer drought stress if the are not watered often enough, watered too lightly or if they are in a hot climate with low humidity which saps moisture from the leaves and dries the potting medium too quickly for the roots to uptake moisture.

Typically orchid need to be watered thoroughly around once every 7-14 days (depending on climate) so that excess water runs from the drainage holes in the base to ensure water reaches the roots.

If the orchid is watered too lightly then only the top inch or so of the medium medium becomes moist and the roots cannot access the water they require.

The first sign of a drought stressed orchid is the leaves starting to droop. With severe drought stress the leaves can even turn yellow and the roots shrivel up, turn white, thin and papery and die back.

If some of the roots become shriveled and die back the orchid can no longer transport water and nutrients around the plant properly which causes the leaves to turn yellow and the leaves and flowers can drop off.

However if some roots are still alive then the orchid can recover from drought if your correct the watering practices and ensure your orchid stays between a temperature of 55°F (12°C) and 75°F (23°C) and out of full sun to reduce stress whilst the orchid recovers.

How to Revive a Drooping Orchid

  • Place the orchid in a basin of water for 10 minutes ensuring the roots are fully submerged. Whilst orchids do not require watering as often as some house plants, they grow best when the potting medium has a good soak for each bout of watering. Placing a drought stressed orchid in a basin of water, allows much needed moisture to reach the roots and ensures that your potting medium is evenly moist. Takes the orchid out of the water after 10 minutes and allow excess water to drain freely from the drainage holes.
  • Always give the orchid’s potting medium a good soak. Whilst it is not necessary to place your orchid in a basin every time you water, it is important to ensure you water orchids generously, so that water trickles from the base of the pot. This ensures that the potting medium is evenly moist and the orchids roots can uptake the water they require to replenish water reserves that are stored in the orchids roots (so that they feel plump, rather the shriveled).
  • Increase how often you water your orchid (if necessary). Orchids require watering less often then most house plants, but the potting medium should not dry out completely between bouts of watering. Typically orchids should be watered once every 7 days in Spring and Summer and once every 14 days in Fall and Winter although this varies according to climate and conditions.
  • To establish when you should water your orchid in your climate feel the potting medium with your finger to detect moisture. The top inch of the potting medium should be allowed to dry out between bouts of watering to meet the orchid’s watering requirements and to avoid root rot. If the top inch feels moist then delay watering for a day or so. When the top inch feels dry this is the perfect time to water your orchid with a generous soak.
  • Mist and roots the leaves of the orchid regularly. Mist the leaves and roots of the orchid to reduce transpiration (water loss) from the leaves whist it is drought stressed. Houses are generally much lower in humidity then the orchids native environment, so misting or the use of a humidifier is best practices to prevent leaves from drooping. Spray the leaves and roots every other day to create a humid micro-climate to help revive the drooping orchid.
  • Ensure orchids are in an area of bright, indirect light rather then full sunlight. Whilst you are trying to revive a drought stressed orchid keep it out the way of direct or filtered sunlight as this can exacerbate the the leaves and roots drying too quickly. Most orchid species grow in forests, so they prefer to be out of direct sunlight which can burn the leaves.
  • Keep orchids in a temperature range of 55°F 80°F as high temperatures exacerbate drought stress. The cooler temperatures provides the optimal conditions for the orchid to recovery without stress from drying conditions.

It can also help to cut away dead white, papery roots as these roots do not revive and cutting back can helps stimulate the growth of new health roots. If the stems (or flower spikes) turn brown, cut them back to the base with a pair of scissors or pruners to stimulate new growth.

With consistent watering, misted leaves for more humidity and placing the orchid in bright, indirect light at the right temperature, the orchid should start to show signs of recover over the next few weeks and can eventually flower again.

Too Much Fertilizer can Burn Orchid Roots

  • Symptoms. Leaves turn floppy, the orchid displays fewer flowers or no flowers and the roots can turn brown or black. Sometimes the leaves can turn yellow.
  • Causes. Ordinary houseplant fertilizer is too strong for orchids. Apply fertilizer too often or in too high concentration. Accumulation of salts can from fertilizer can prevent the orchids roots from up taking water which turns the leaves yellow.

Orchids are adapted to growing with their roots relatively exposed on other trees or in loose soil and therefore do not necessarily require lots of fertilizer.

However some feed is necessary to supporting healthy growth and can encourage flower but it is essential that you use fertilizer that is speciually adpated for orchids.

A specifically formulated orchid fertilizer contains all the nutrients the orchid requires at the right concentration to support healthy growth and promote flowering.

Orchid fertilizer provides the rights balance of nutrients at the right concentration.
Orchid fertilizer provides the rights balance of nutrients at the right concentration.

Too much fertilizer can cause the leaves of the orchid to grow floppy and not display flowers. The roots can also burn which can cause the roots to not function properly and the orchid dies back.

How to Revive an Orchid with Burned Roots

  • The first step is to scale back any use of fertilizer and place the orchids in a basin and wash the orchids roots under the faucet for around 10 minutes. This thorough watering helps to dissolve some of the salts that can accumulate in the soil after using too much fertilizer. Let the water drain out of the drainage holes and allow the top inch of the potting medium to dry.
  • After you have dissolved the excess salts under the tap and the top inch of the potting medium is dry, take the orchid out of its pots and inspect any roots. The orchids roots should be green or light gray and feel plump and firm when the are healthy.
  • If the roots appear brown or black then you can snip back these roots to the base of the plant as these roots can no longer function properly.
  • Repot your orchid ideally into a new potting medium of pine bark or special orchid potting mixes (avoid Sphagnum  moss as it retains too much moisture) as a new potting mix mitigates the affects of too much fertilizer.
  • Any leaves that have turned yellow are likely to turn brown die back and fall off the plant. Do not attempt to remove these leaves by force as this can damage the orchid.
  • Take good care of your orchid and it should show signs of revival over the next few months with new leaves emerging or new roots replacing the old damaged roots.

I must emphasis the importance of using a specially formulated orchid fertilizer (available from garden centers and on Amazon) when feeding orchids.

Orchids natural growing conditions are fairly unusual (they like to grow on trees and often attain nutrients from rain water or water vapor around them) and there roots are far too sensitive for ordinary fertilizer.

Special orchid fertilizer applied at the correct frequency and at the right quantity should support health orchid growth and promote flowering, so always follow the manufacturers instructions.

Orchid Flowers and Flower Buds Falling Off

  • Symptoms. Orchids flowers or flower buds falling off suddenly.
  • Causes. The orchid is stressed due to several factors such as a contrast in temperature or humidity. Low light or full sun can both causes the buds to drop. Stress from dehydration or overwatering.

If orchid flowers or flower buds are dropping off, this is usually and indication that the environment in which the orchid is growing as contrary to the conditions to which orchids are adapted.

Orchid flowers fall off suddenly when there is a significant contrast in temperature or humidity. Temperatures lower 55°F (12°C) or higher then 75°F (23°C) causes stress and is most commonly the reason for flowers and buds to fall from your orchid.

Orchids prefer a relatively humid environment so if there is a fluctuation in humidity the orchid can drop flowers due to stress. Fluctuations in humidity can be caused by indoor heating, draughts and air conditioning.

Underwatering or watering orchids too lightly also causes flowers and buds to drop as a survival strategy to conserve resources.

Orchids are very sensitive to overwatering which can cause a range of symptoms that includes the flowers and buds dropping off and leaves dying back.

How to Revive Orchids with Flowers Dropping Off

  • Once the flowers or flower buds have fallen off there is not much you can do other then to correct the environmental stress that caused the flowers to drop off in the first place.
  • Ensure that the orchid is in a room with a temperature between 55°F (12°C) and 75°F (23°C). Orchids are relatively sensitive to fluctuations of temperature even within their preferred temperature range so try to keep the temperature relatively consistent. Keep your orchid away from draughts from open windows, out of a direct current from air conditioning and away from radiators or sources of heat.
  • The air in houses tends to be much lower in humidity compared to the orchids native environment. Increase the humidity by misting the leaves to create a humid micro-climate that replicates the conditions of the orchids native environment. Spray your orchids once every 2 days if you are in a climate of low humidity. Placing orchids in bathrooms or kitchens can also help as they tend to be the most humid areas of houses.
  • Bright, indirect light helps to promote flowering so try to locate your orchid somewhere in the home where it is bright but not in direct sun. if the orchid is in a relatively dark room then the plant does not have enough energy to produce flowers to the same extent.
  • Orchids should be watered less often then most house plants but should not be left to dry out completely. The top inch of the potting medium should be allowed to dry between bouts of watering, which ensures the orchid has sufficient water and avoids the dangers of overwatering such as root rot.
  • Apply a special orchid fertilizer to the orchids following the manufacturers instructions to ensure that the orchid has all the nutrient at the right concentration to promote flowering. Do not apply ordinary houseplant fertilizer as this can kill the orchid.

With the right conditions orchids should retain their flowers and flower buds and bloom again, usually in the Spring Fall or Winter.

Orchid Dying After Repotting

If your orchid is dying after repotting this could be as a result of:

  • Transplant shock. Transplanting orchids can cause stress, particularly if their roots are damaged or they are moved from one location to another with a contrast in light, temperature or airflow. Always ensure your orchid is in the correct temperature range of between 55°F (12°C) and 75°F (23°C) in bright indirect light (rather then too mush shade or full sun) and keep orchids away from draughts and air currents after repotting.
  • Orchid transplanting into a moisture retaining potting medium. Orchids require aerated potting mediums and grow best in pine bark or specially formulated orchid potting mixes. Sphagnum moss often retains too much moisture for orchids to tolerate and the orchid dies back of root root (yellow leaves, wilting appearance, and roots that are turning brow, or black with a mushy texture). Ordinary potting soil retains too much moisture and has a structure that does not allow enough oxygen around the roots for orchids to live.
  • Overwatering. Orchids are very susceptible to overwatering. Always wait for the top inch of the potting medium to dry out before watering again.
  • Pots without drainage holes in the base and the use of trays and saucers. When you repot your orchid ensure that it is planted in a pot with drainage holes in the base to allow excess water to escape after watering. Decorative outer pots, saucers and trays can also cause water to pool around the roots of your orchid causing root rot. Always empty outer pots, saucers and trays after watering orchids to prevent water pooling around the roots of your orchid and causing root rot.

Key Takeaways:

  • The reason for dying orchids is because of root rot due to overwatering or soils that retain too much moisture. Orchids require the top inch of the soil to dry out between bouts of watering. Overwatering causes orchid leaves and stems to wilt, turn yellow and the roots to die from root rot.
  • Orchid leaves turn yellow and wilt if they are planted in moss or ordinary potting soil because they retain too much moisture which causes root rot. Orchids should be planted in pine bark to replicate their natural soil conditions of good drainage and aeration around the roots to prevent yellow leaves and root rot developing.
  • The reason orchid leaves droop is because of dehydration from underwatering and low humidity. Water orchids with a good soak once every 7 days and mist their leaves once every 2 days to create a humid micro-climate to emulate the orchids natural growing conditions and revives drooping orchid leaves.
  • Too much fertilizer can burn sensitive orchid roots causing the roots to die back and the orchid leaves to turn floppy and yellow and prevent flowering. Orchids do not tolerate normal houseplant fertilizer and require fertilizer specifically formulated for orchids.
  • The reasons orchid leaves turn yellow is because of root rot from overwatering, sunburn, too much fertilizer or cold temperatures. Orchids are sensitive to overwatering and over fertilizing which kills the roots and causes the leaves to turn yellow. Orchid leaves turn yellow and scorch in full sun.
  • The reason orchid flowers fall off is because of stress due hot or cold temperatures, dehydration, overwatering or low humidity. Orchids require a stable indoor temperature of between 55°F and 75°F, in bright indirect light with some humidity to prevent flowers and buds dropping off.
  • To revive dying orchids, create the conditions of an orchids natural environment with indirect light, stable temperatures, cut away any dying roots and repot the orchid into a pine bark potting medium. Only water orchids when the top inch of the potting medium is dry.

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