How to Save an Orchid with Yellow Leaves


How to save orchids with yellow leaves

The reason orchid leaves turn yellow is because the roots are dying and can no longer transport water or nutrients around the orchid which causes the orchid leaves to turn yellow indicating stress from overwatering or drought. Orchids can also turn yellow because of temperatures colder than 55°F and because of sunburn.

Most common reasons for orchid leaves turning yellow:

  1. Watering too often causes root rot (Orchids should only be watered once every 7-14 days).
  2. The potting medium retains too much moisture, resulting in root rot (the orchid should be planted in a potting medium composed of pine bark chippings. Moss and ordinary potting soil retain too much moisture around the roots for the orchid to tolerate).
  3. Orchids planted in pots without drainage holes in the base (orchids do not tolerate water pooling around the roots due to decorative outer pots without drainage, or saucers and trays that retain water as water should be able to freely escape from the base of the pot).
  4. Orchid is not watered often enough or watered too lightly (a lack of water kills the orchid’s roots so they can no longer supply the leaves with water and nutrients which causes the leaves to turn yellow).
  5. Too much sun scorches the leaves yellow (orchids should be located in bright, indirect as their leaves are sensitive to sun damage).
  6. Regular houseplant fertilizer burns the orchid’s roots and turns the leaves yellow (orchids require an orchid-specific fertilizer, as regular houseplant fertilizer is too strong).
  7. Temperatures colder than 55°F can turn orchid leaves yellow (orchids are very sensitive to cold temperatures).
  8. Orchids turning yellow after repotting due to transplant shock or root rot (a fluctuation in conditions can cause shock resulting in yellow orchid leaves as a sign of stress.

In my experience, orchids turn yellow because their roots are dying or because the environment they are in is contrary to the preferred conditions to which they are adapted. Keep reading to learn why your orchid leaves are turning yellow and how to save it…

Orchid Leaves Turning Yellow due to Root Rot (Overwatering)

The reason orchid leaves turn yellow is because of root rot due to overwatering or slow-draining soils. Saturated soil starves orchid roots of oxygen causing the roots to die. The dying orchid roots can no longer transport nutrients and water around the orchid causing the leaves to turn yellow.

Orchids are epipthyes which means they grow on trees or in loose aggregate rather than in soil.

Therefore orchids require an aerated potting medium to allow enough oxygen to circulate around the roots so that the roots can respire and function properly.

This also means orchids are adapted to grow in conditions with excellent drainage and orchids do not tolerate their roots being in damp soil which causes the roots to rot.

Watering orchids too often, limits the oxygen around the roots (which is required for root respiration) and promotes the conditions for root rot. Once the roots have died back they can no longer transport the water and nutrients around the plant that helps keep the orchid healthy which causes the leaves to turn yellow as a sign of stress.

Potting mediums that retain too much moisture (such as moss and ordinary potting soil) also have the same effect as overwatering in that they limit the oxygen available around the roots which causes them to shrivel and die back resulting in the leaves turning yellow.

The potting mediums do not have to necessarily retain too much moisture, but may just be too compact and lack the porous qualities that the orchid requires for the roots to function properly.

Orchids should ideally be potted in pine bark this is the potting medium that most closely resembles the growing conditions of the orchid’s preferred environment.

The large size of the pine bark chippings allows plenty of oxygen to circulate around the roots for efficient root respiration and promotes excellent drainage, which significantly reduces the risk of root rot even if you are overwatering the orchid.

Best potting mix for orchids.
Pine bark-based potting mix on the left replicates the orchid’s natural growing conditions whereas the potting soil on the right is too dense and would likely cause root rot resulting in yellow leaves.

The pine bark chippings absorb moisture which then evaporate so that the roots can absorb the water vapor which mimics the process in which orchid uptake water in their native environment.

Moss and potting soil tend to deprive the roots of oxygen due to their much smaller particle size and hold too much moisture around the roots for orchids to tolerate, resulting in yellow leaves.

How to Save Orchids with Yellow Leaves Due to Overwatering

  • Scale back the watering to once every week. If you are watering orchids several times a week, then overwatering is the cause of your orchid leaves turning yellow. Orchids should only be watered when the top inch of the potting medium feels dry. Typically watering once every week in Spring and Summer and once every 2 weeks in Fall and Winter meets the orchids’ watering requirements without risking root rot. However, watering frequency can vary depending on several factors. (Read my article on how to water orchids to learn the right watering frequency for your orchid according to the time of year and different conditions).
  • Remove the orchid from the potting medium and inspect the roots. Healthy orchid roots appear green (or light gray) and feel plump which means they are storing watering, functioning properly, and are optimally hydrated. If the orchid roots are thin and shriveled, papery, or brown or yellow with a bad smell, then the roots are rotting and dying back. The dying or dead roots do not revive and can spread rot so it is important to cut them back to save the orchid.
  • Snip off any diseased or dying roots. If the roots are yellow, brown with a mushy texture, or completely shriveled then the roots are not able to transport water or nutrients (resulting in yellow leaves) around the plant and should be removed to prevent the potential spread of rot.
  • Cut the dying roots back the the base of the plant or back to healthy tissue, using a sterile pair of pruners or scissors. Cutting back roots can feel drastic but orchids are more resilient than their reputation suggests and they can grow back new, healthy roots that can actually uptake the moisture and nutrients that the orchid requires to revive.
  • Replace the potting medium with pine bark (or a prepared orchid potting mix). It is important to replant the orchid in a new potting medium, as the old potting medium can host fungal pathogens that cause root rot. Even if your orchid is planted in pine bark, it is good to repot the orchid every 2 years or so with a new potting medium as pine bark breaks down (like all organic matter) over 2 years which can decrease the aeration and drainage from around the roots.

Once you have cut back all the dying and diseased roots and repotted the orchid in a new potting medium, the orchid has a chance to grow new healthy roots and eventually recover.

The yellow leaves themselves may not recover as such, eventually turning brown and falling off, however, if there are healthy roots the orchid can start to grow new healthy green leaves as long as the orchid is cared for correctly.

Watch this helpful YouTube video for a visual guide on saving orchids with root rot:

Should I Cut the Yellow Orchid Leaves Off?

As a general rule do not cut or pull the yellow orchid leaves off. The yellowing leaves fall off on their own once they have died back due to a lack of nutrients. If you force the leaves off the orchid then you risk damaging the plant unnecessarily.

In my experience, typically orchid leaves turn yellow, shrivel, eventually turning brown, and fall off of their own accord. When the leaves fall off naturally, the point at which the leaf was attached is sealed over they do not leave an open wound which is the case if the leaf is forcibly removed from the plant.

Wounds caused by forcing or cutting the yellowing leaves off can become infected by fungal pathogens that can further damage your orchid, so it’s always best to let the leaves fall off of their own accord.

It is safe to cut back yellow orchid stems back to the base of the orchid after flowering. Read my article, orchid stem turning yellow?

Orchid Leaves Yellow and Wrinkled (Drought Stress)

Orchid leaves turn yellow if not watered often enough, watered too lightly, or because of low humidity. Underwatering orchids cause roots to turn white, shrivel, and die back. The shriveled, dying roots cannot transport water and nutrients to the orchid which causes the leaves to turn yellow.

Whilst orchids typically require watering less often than other house plants, the potting medium does require a good soak each watering to ensure the orchid roots can draw upon that moisture and absorb water vapor from the air surrounding the roots.

If the orchid is watered too lightly, then only the top inch or so of the potting medium is moist, whereas the entire potting medium should be evenly moist after watering to avoid drought stress and yellow leaves.

As a general rule, orchids should also be watered once every 7 days during Spring and Summer and once every 14 days in the Fall and Winter to meet their watering requirements.

Healthy orchid roots should appear green after watering and turn a light grey color over the course of a week, with a plump feel to them.

Healthy green orchid roots.
Healthy green orchid roots.

Underwatered orchid roots shrivel up due to lack of water and turn thin, and papery and die back.

Dying orchid roots.
Dying orchid roots, white with a shriveled appearance can no longer transport water and nutrients to the leaves causing them to turn yellow.

Once the roots have died back from a lack of water they can no longer function properly and transport nutrients and water to the leaves which cause them to turn yellow and shrivel in appearance.

Low humidity can contribute to leaves yellowing because orchids are accustomed to growing in environments with a typical humidity of 40 – 60 percent.

The humidity in our homes tends to be significantly lower than this, which can sap moisture from the leaves and contribute to the drought stress that results in yellow leaves.

How To Save Orchids With Yellow Leaves Due to Underwatering

  • Place the orchid’s pot in a basin of water for around 10 minutes, ensuring the root ball is fully submerged. This allows water to effectively infiltrate the potting medium so the roots can access the moisture they require. Remove the orchid from the basin after 10 minutes and allow the excess water to drain out of the base of the pot.
  • Wait until the top inch of the orchid potting medium feels dry before watering again (typically watering once every 7 days). Always water the orchid with a good soak. This can be under the faucet (tap) or again, in a basin of water to ensure the potting medium is evenly moist.
  • As a general rule water orchids once every 7 days in Spring and Summer and once every 14 days in the Fall and Winter. Always ensure the top inch of the potting medium has dried out between bouts of watering. Watering with this frequency meets the watering requirements of orchids to keep the leaves a healthy green rather than yellow and avoids the danger of overwatering which can cause root rot.
  • Mist the orchid’s leaves, stems, and roots once every 2 days. Whilst the orchid is drought-stressed, I recommend increasing the humidity of the air around the orchid by misting regularly with a spray bottle. The regular misting creates a humid micro-climate that emulates the humid conditions of the orchid’s natural environment.
  • Ensure that your orchid is in a room at the right temperature, away from sources of heat or air currents. Orchids prefer a temperature range of 55°F at night and a maximum daytime temperature of 75°F to grow and flower. If the temperature is too high or fluctuates significantly due to indoor heating then this can increase the rate of evaporation from the potting medium and sap moisture from the leaves faster than it can be drawn up by the roots causing the drought stress that kills the roots and turns the leaves yellow.
  • Air currents from air conditioning and draughts also lower the humidity to the point of stressing the orchid and exacerbating the conditions that turn the orchid leaves yellow. Ensure that your orchid is in a draught-free area of the house.
  • Keep orchids out of any direct sun whilst the orchid is stressed from drought. Orchids prefer bright, indirect light which gives the plant enough light to produce energy and flower, whilst also protecting the sensitive leaves from burning. The more sunlight the greater the demand for water. If the roots are dying from drought then they cannot supply moisture at the same rate as a healthy plant which results in yellow leaves and a dying orchid.

The most important factor in saving orchids with yellow leaves from drought stress is to correct the watering practices. Do not let the potting medium dry out completely, rather wait till the top inch of the medium feels dry before watering.

For most houses, I personally find this takes around a week in the Summer and 14 days in the Winter, but I recommend you read my article on watering orchids so that you know how to water your orchid appropriately for your climate and conditions as there are several variables which increase or decrease how often your should water your orchids so that they stay healthy.

The other best practices of caring for your orchid by ensuring it is in the optimal temperature range and keeping it away from sources of heat and draughts should help to save your orchid.

As long as some root are alive then the orchid can recover. The yellow leaves may drop off and die back but new leaves can grow once the conditions are more favorable.

Clear plastic pots are a good way to encourage more growth and for the orchid to recover quicker as the orchid’s roots are capable of photosynthesis to help provide the plant with energy in the absence of healthy leaves.

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

Once new roots grow new green leaves start to emerge to replace the yellow dying leaves and the orchid can make a recovery.

(Read my article on how to revive a dying orchid for the full guide).

Orchid Leaves Turning Yellow Because of Too Much Sun

A common reason for orchid leaves turning yellow is because of too much direct sunlight burning the leaves. Orchids are native to forests and grow under a canopy out of direct sunlight. If orchids are in a sunny window, the sensitive leaves can turn yellow because of sunburn.

As orchids are adapted to growing in forests, they do not tolerate intense sunshine, however, they can grow in some filtered light, but ideally, orchids should be in bright, indirect light as this provides the plant with enough energy for flowering yet does not risk damage from sunburn.

Sun-burnt orchid leaves appear a yellow and somewhat brown scorched color, which is most pronounced on the leaves that are facing the sun.

Whilst the orchid as a whole can survive the individual sun burnt leaves do not recover from their scorched appearance or return to green.

The scorched leaves also cannot function properly which means the plant as a whole suffers and leaves often turn brown, die back, and fall off the orchid.

If the plant is sun burnt then it is usually also suffering from drought stress, as the intense sun dries out the leaves, potting medium, and roots much quicker, causing drooping leaves, and stems and harming any blooms.

However, the orchid can recover and grow new leaves once you have moved the orchid to an area with more favorable conditions.

How to Save Yellow Orchid Leaves from Sun Burn

  • Always place your orchid in an area of bright, indirect light which reduces heat stress and damage to sensitive leaves. Orchids are adapted to the shade of the forest canopy, so it is important to recreate these conditions by avoiding direct sunlight when growing orchids in the home.
  • Wait for the damaged leaves to fall off rather than cutting them off. Typically the sun burnt yellow leaves turn brown, die back, and fall off from the orchid when they are ready. Removing them yourself can damage the orchid.
  • Ideally, repot your orchid in a clear plastic pot for recovery. Orchids are unusual in that their roots are capable of photosynthesizing to provide the plant with energy (usually the function of the leaves). Photosynthesizing is not the primary function of roots but as the leaves are damaged and not capable of photosynthesizing this is a useful mechanism for the orchid to recover. Clear plastic pots allow light to the roots which provides the orchid with energy to function and grow new leaves.

The orchid can eventually grow new leaves (which are usually smaller) and with good care, the orchid can recover.

How quickly the orchid recovers from sun burnt yellow leaves depends on the severity of the damage. If some leaves are damaged, yet some are protected by shade then the orchid usually recovers much quicker.

If all the leaves are damaged and fall off the orchid can still show signs of recovery over the following weeks but on a longer time scale with a slower rate of recovery.

Too Much Fertilizer Turns Orchid Leaves Yellow

Orchid roots are more sensitive than most houseplants and can burn and die back if you use ordinary houseplant fertilizer.

Too much fertilizer burns the roots of orchids causing them to die back. The burnt roots are no longer capable of transporting water and nutrients around the plant which causes the orchid’s leaves to turn yellow as a sign of stress.

Orchids are not necessarily heavy feeders but in my experience, orchids look their best with a specially formulated orchid fertilizer that supports healthy growth and encourages flowering.

Specific orchid fertilizer contains all the nutrients, at the right concentration for orchids to thrive and reduces any risk of the roots burning or excess salts accumulating in the soil which can interferes with orchid roots ability to uptake water, both of which can turn the leaves of orchids yellow.

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

If the fertilizer you are using is too strong or you are using it too often, it can cause the leaves of the orchid to grow floppy and not display flowers.

How to Save Orchid With Yellow Leaves due to Excess Fertilizer

  • Scale back the use of any fertilizer and wash the orchid roots and potting medium under the faucet (tap) for around 10 minutes with a gentle flow of water. This helps to dissolve the excess salts that can accumulate with frequent use of fertilizer. With less salt in the potting medium,, the roots are better able to uptake water when required. This is a short-term solution and ideally, the potting medium should be changed for the orchid to fully recover.
  • Let the water drain through the drainage holes and allow the top inch of the potting medium to dry out over the course of a week.
  • After a week it is a good idea to inspect the roots of your orchid. This is easy if you have a clear plastic pot, but if not, take the orchid out of the potting medium to inspect its roots. The orchid’s roots should be green or light gray and should feel plump which indicates they are healthy.
  • If any roots are brown, black, or turned thin and white then these roots are dying back. Snip these roots back to the base of the orchid as these roots are no longer able to transport water or nutrients around the orchid.
  • Repot your orchid into a new potting medium of pine bark chippings or a special orchid potting mix (avoid moss as it retains too much moisture and promotes the conditions for root rot). The new potting mix does not have the accumulated salts or any other harmful effects of excess fertilizer, so the orchid has a better chance of recovery.
  • Any leaves that have turned yellow are likely to die and fall off of their own accord. Do not attempt to remove the leaves whilst they are still attached as this can damage the orchid.

With all the best care practices for orchids, the plant should recover over the next few weeks, with new leaves beginning to emerge in Spring and Summer, however, it depends on the severity of the damage to the roots.

It is important to emphasize that you should use a specially formulated orchid fertilizer (available from garden centers and on Amazon) when feeding orchids rather then regular houseplant fertilizer.

Orchids are epiphytes (which means they like to grow on trees and often attain nutrients from rainwater or water vapor around them in their natural environment) and their roots are far too sensitive for ordinary fertilizer.

Special orchid fertilizer applied at the correct frequency and the right quantity supports healthy orchid growth and promotes flowering, so always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Cold Temperatures Cause Orchid Leaves to Turn Yellow

Orchids are very sensitive to cold temperatures and require a temperature range of 55°F at night and a maximum daytime temperature of 75°F.

Whilst they can tolerate the occasion dip in temperature below 55°F, any sustained period under 55°F can cause the orchid leaves to turn yellow as a sign of stress.

This often happens when an orchid is in a draught or near a cold window, particularly if the leaves are in contact with a cold window pane.

Cold temperatures also cause the orchid potting medium to stay moist for longer around the roots which promotes the conditions for root rot.

Orchids are more hardy than they are usually given credit but unfortunately, it is much more difficult to save an orchid that has suffered cold damage due to their sensitivity to the cold.

The prospect of recovery depends on the extent of the cold damage to the orchid, with severe damage the orchid is likely to die back and not recover, whereas with some light damage to one or two leaves that may have been in contact with a cold window, the orchid can recover.

To give the orchid the best chance of recovery, ensure that it is in a room with stable temperatures that stay between 55°F and 75°F and follow all the best care practices such as watering once every 7-14 days placing the orchid in an area of bright, indirect light.

Avoid using fertilizer whilst the orchid is under stress as this can promote foliage growth at a time when the plant is already under strain.

If new green growth emerges in the Spring and Summer then your orchid should recover.

Orchid Leaves Yellow After Repotting

The most common reason for orchid leaves turning yellow after repotting is due to transplant shock or planting in potting mediums that retain too much moisture. Yellow leaves indicate stress due to fluctuating temperature, humidity, air currents, levels of light, or too much moisture around the roots.

Repotting or moving your orchid can mean a change of environment for the orchid which is at odds with its preferred conditions.

To save it you have to correct the environmental conditions that are causing the stress.

Orchids should be repotted once every 2-3 years because the roots of orchids require a particularly areaed potting medium to allow oxygen to circulate the roots for root respiration. Pine bark chippings are the best potting medium for orchids due to their aerated porous structure that promotes good drainage and keeps the roots healthy.

If you have repotted your orchid into moss or potting soil then these materials retain too much moisture around the roots and deprive the roots of oxygen which causes the leaves to turn yellow and the orchid dies back.

Therefore you should always pot orchids in pine bark potting mediums (or special orchid bark-based potting mixes) for a healthy orchid rather than moss or ordinary potting soil.

It is also imperative to plant orchids in the appropriate pot. Orchids should always be planted in pots that have drainage holes in the base of the pot.

If they are placed in a decorative outer pot or they are placed on saucers or trays to prevent water from spilling, then it is important to empty the saucer of excess water regularly as orchids cannot tolerate their roots being in saturated soil.

If your orchids has been in a pool of water due to saucer, trays or decorative outer pots then follow the instructions for saving an orchid due to overwatering at the top of the article.

As long as the orchid is in bright, indirect light at a temperature of between 55°F and 75°F watered with a good soak once every 7-14 days, kept out of draughts and misted every few days to create a humid micro-climate then the orchid should be able to adjust after repotting in the following weeks.

(Read my article, how to revive a wilting orchid).

Key Takeaways:

  • Most often the reason for yellow orchid leaves is root rot because of overwatering and slowing draining soils. If the orchid’s roots are dying of root rot, they can no longer transport water and nutrients around the plant which causes the leaves to turn yellow.
  • Orchid leaves turn yellow if there is too much moisture around the roots which promotes the conditions for root rot. Moss and ordinary potting soil retain moisture and can exclude oxygen from the soil which causes the roots to die back resulting in yellow leaves.
  • Pine bark is the ideal potting medium for orchids as it allows oxygen to circulate the roots and has good drainage to avoid root rot and yellow leaves.
  • Orchids planted in pots without drainage holes in the base or saucers underneath the pot cause water to pool around the orchid’s roots causing root rot which turns the orchid’s leaves yellow.
  • Yellow orchid leaves can indicate the orchid’s roots have shriveled and died because of underwatering. If the orchid is not watered often enough the roots die back and cannot uptake the water or nutrients so the leaves turn yellow as a sign of stress.
  • Orchid leaves turn yellow because of sunburn. Orchids have adapted to growing in the shade in their natural environment therefore orchid leaves are very sensitive to direct sunlight. If orchid leaves are exposed to full sun they scorch and turn yellow.
  • Orchid leaves can turn yellow because of too much fertilizer. Orchids are not heavy feeders, so if fertilizer is used too often or in too high a concentration, then the roots can burn and no longer function which results in the orchid leaves turning yellow and dying.
  • Orchids can turn yellow if exposed to temperatures cooler than 55°F. Orchids are very sensitive to cold temperatures. If the orchid leaves are in contact with a cold window pane or a cold room then the leaves turn yellow as a sign of stress.
  • Orchid leaves turn yellow after repotting due to transplant shock. A change in potting medium, temperature, airflow, or humidity can all cause leaves to turn yellow as a sign of stress. Repotting orchids in moss or potting soil rather than pine bark can turn leaves yellow indicating root rot.

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