The reason for orchids dying is often because of overwatering or due to planting in the wrong potting medium. Overwatering or potting mediums that retain too much moisture promote the conditions for root rot which causes the orchid leaves to wilt, turn yellow, and die.
However, orchids are sensitive to a range of environmental factors which can cause them to die back.
Here is a reference table with the most common reasons for orchids dying:
|Common Reasons for Dying Orchids:
|Orchids typically should only be watered once per week. Watering too often causes root rot.
|Potting Medium Retains too Much Moisture:
|Orchids need aerated well-draining potting mediums such as pine bark. Moss or regular potting soil can retain too much moisture around the roots or limit the available oxygen which causes root rot.
|Orchid roots shrivel and the leaves turn yellow with a wilted appearance because of underwatering or watering too lightly. Orchids should be watered thoroughly once every 7 days.
|Humidity is too Low:
|Orchids are tropical plants that prefer humidity of at least 65%. If the air to too dry then orchid leaves and roots visibly shrivel.
|Draughts, Air Currents, and Sources of Heat Drying Orchid out:
|Too much airflow or fluctuations in temperature from cold draughts can cause orchid flowers to drop and the orchid can turn yellow as a sign of stress.
|Too Much Sunlight:
|Orchids require partial sun or filtered light. Too much direct sunlight results in scorched yellow/brown leaves.
|Not Enough Sunlight:
|Too much shade results in poor growth and the orchid displays fewer flowers.
|Temperature too Hot or Too Cold:
|Orchids grow best in a temperature range of 55°F (12°C) and 75°F (23°C). Temperatures hotter or cooler than this for a prolonged period can be the cause of a dying orchid.
|Crown rot is caused by fungal disease pathogens in stagnant water that collects in the crown of the plant due to overhead watering turning the leaves, and stems yellow and eventually spreading around the orchid, killing the roots.
|Too Much Fertilizer Can Burn the Roots:
|Orchids should have a specialized fertilizer to prevent burning the roots as regular houseplant fertilizer is too strong for the roots and can kill the orchid.
To save dying orchids it is important to snip away any diseased or rotting roots and recreate some of the conditions of their natural tropical forest canopy environment with higher humidity, indirect light, well-draining aerated pine bark-based potting mediums, and watering once a week.
Keep reading to learn the cause of your dying orchid and how to solve the problem…
1. Orchid Dying due to Overwatering (Root rot)
The most common reason for orchids dying is because of overwatering. Orchids that are watered too often develop root rot, which turns leaves yellow with a dying appearance. Typically, orchids require watering once per week.
If you are watering more than once a week this is the reason your orchid is dying.
Symptoms of overwatering and root rot:
- Yellowing, drooping leaves.
- Roots turn rotten with an unpleasant smell.
- Roots eventually die back and turn to a papery texture and white in color.
Most of the common household species of orchids such as phalaenopsis or ‘moth‘ orchids as shown in the photo are epiphytes which means that they actually grow on other trees rather than in soil in humid forests.
This means that they are used to growing conditions that have excellent drainage with moderate rainfall and high humidity.
The reason the roots extend out of the potting medium the way they do is that the orchids are actually capable of absorbing water vapor from the surrounding humid air rather than drawing up moisture from the soil.
If the orchid is watered too frequently then the potting medium stays too damp for the orchid roots to tolerate which results in root rot.
Sometimes I find just individual roots appear to rot which then shrivel die back and turn a papery white, and therefore can no longer transport water and nutrients around the plant which causes the leaves to turn yellow and droop.
How to Save Overwatered Orchids with Root Rot…
- The key to saving overwatered orchids with root rot is to scale back the watering. Orchids should only be watered once a week in the Spring and Summer and once every 7-10 days in Fall and Winter.
- Allow the potting medium to dry out and inspect the roots for signs of disease. Healthy roots look green (and light gray) in color with a plump feel to them. Orchid roots with root rot can look brown and feel soft or rotten with an unpleasant smell. Eventually, the roots look papery white and die back.
- Remove the orchid from the potting medium and snip back any diseased or dying-looking roots back to the base of the plant or to healthy growth. This prevents the rot from spreading and causing the entire orchid to die back.
- Use a sterile pair of pruners or scissors to cut the roots and always wipe the blades with a cloth soaked in alcohol disinfectant between each cut, as this can prevent the spread of fungal disease pathogens to otherwise healthy parts of the plant.
- Any roots that are green or shriveled and grey but not rotten can be revived and can still function properly.
- Once you have snipped back the diseased roots replant your orchid in a new pine bark-based potting medium to improve the drainage and either plant it back in a new pot (with drainage holes in the base) or clean the current pot out with disinfectant then replant your orchid.
- Give the orchid a good soak after replanting in its new potting medium to help mitigate the transplant shock and water it again after a week.
- Sometimes the orchid’s yellow leaves continue to die back and eventually fall off. Orchids are actually capable of photosynthesizing with their roots so even if the leaves fall off the orchid can still potentially recover.
- Mist the orchid every few days to maintain a humid micro-climate which emulates the humid conditions of its native environment and helps to mitigate stress after cutting the orchid’s roots back.
Whether or not the orchid can recover really depends on how long it has been overwatered and how many roots are rotten or dying.
If nearly all the roots are dying back or diseased then in my experience the orchid is unlikely to recover. The more healthy roots that remain the better the orchid’s chances are of recovery.
The most important steps are to cut back the diseased or dying roots and to replant in a new pine-based potting medium as this prevents the spread of rot and the pine bark potting medium drastically improves drainage which reduces the risk of root rot.
Always plant orchids in pots with drainage holes in the base to allow excess water to escape after watering. (Read my article choosing the best pots for orchids).
2. Potting Medium Retains Too Much Moisture Around Orchids Roots
Orchids can turn yellow and wilt if they are planted in moss or soil-based potting mediums. Tropical orchids naturally grow in trees rather than soil and prefer an aerated pine bark-based potting medium.
Moss and soil retain too much water and prevent air circulation resulting in the orchid dying of root rot.
The vast majority of orchids grown in our homes are tropical ‘Moth’ (phalaenopsis) orchids which grow on other trees in tropical forests, so their roots are not rooted in soil like most plants.
Therefore potting mediums that are soil or moss based do not allow enough flow of air or water vapor around the roots and retains too much moisture which promote the conditions for root rot.
Both the restriction of airflow (which prevents root respiration) around the roots and root rot from too much moisture turns the orchid leaves yellow and cause them to wilt. Flowers can also fall off as an early sign of stress.
This results in the roots of the orchid turning from a healthy and plump green or light grey color to shriveled grey roots which eventually die back.
The less healthy roots the orchid has the less water and nutrients they can uptake and transport around the plant causing the leaves to wilt, turn yellow, and die back.
It is important to note that orchid roots are unusual in that they are capable of photosynthesis, so a soil-based potting medium would also exclude light and restrict their function.
However, pine bark is of course an organic material that decomposes into a compost-like structure over time.
Therefore your orchid could be planted in the correct potting medium but the pine bark has broken down and no longer retains the same aerated and well draining structure which leads to the leaves wilting and turning yellow because of root rot.
In my experience, I personally find my pine bark potting mix decomposes to the point it should be replaced every 2-3 years.
How to Save Orchids Turning Yellow and Wilting
- Take the orchid out of its pot gently remove the moss or soil from around the roots and inspect them for any signs of disease or signs of stress. Healthy roots appear green or light gray and feel plump. Unhealthy roots are thin, shriveled, and can be yellow, brown, or papery gray.
- With a sterile pair of pruners or scissors cut back any unhealthy diseased roots back to the base and wipe the blades with a cloth soaked in disinfectant between cuts to prevent the potential spread of any fungal disease to otherwise healthy growth.
- Replace the potting soil with brand new pine bark potting medium that has been specifically made for orchids. The individual pine bark pieces are large enough to allow more air to circulate and allow excess water to drain efficiently. The pine bark pieces absorb some water which then evaporates and creates the water vapour from which the orchid draws up moisture, replicating the conditions of its native environment.
If enough healthy plump roots are remaining then the orchid can recover even if the leaves are yellow and fall off.
As orchid roots are capable of photosynthesis (which is usually the function of the leaves) the plant can still live and revive in the absence of leaves. Within a few weeks, new leaves should emerge from the base of the plant.
With new potting medium and proper care practices, your orchid has the best chance of recovery.
3. Orchid Dying Due to Underwatering
If the orchid is not watered often enough or watered too lightly then the orchid’s roots cannot access the moisture or water vapor they require which causes the roots to die back and the orchid’s leaves to droop and turn yellow.
I find that the advice ‘orchids do not need much water’ is occasionally misinterpreted by growers as to mean that orchids should be watered with only a small quantity of water.
If you water orchids too lightly then only the top inch or so of the potting medium becomes moist and the water does not reach the roots that are deeper in the medium.
This results in drought stress and causes the roots, with no access to water to shrivel in size and die back. If their are fewer healthy roots then there is less water and nutrients drawn up which results in the leaves drooping and turning yellow.
Orchids should be watered once a week in Spring and Summer with a generous soak so that excess water trickles from the base of the pot and watered once every 7-10 days in Fall and Winter when the plant’s growth slows down in response to fewer hours of light.
If you are watering your orchids less often than once every 7 days then your orchid is underwatered and this is the cause of the orchid leaves turning yellow and the plant dying back.
(Read my article, how often to water orchids).
How to Save Underwatered, Drooping, and Yellowing Orchids
- Always water orchids with a generous soak rather than a light watering. This ensures that moisture can reach the roots deep in the pot rather than just the roots at the surface. This keeps the roots healthy, plump, and functional so they can transport moisture and nutrients around the orchid rather than the leaves turning yellow and wilting.
- Underwatered roots tend to shrivel up as the plant uses its stored moisture reserves. This means that unhealthy shriveled roots can revive if they are watered with a really good soak. Once the orchid’s roots can uptake water they can replenish their moisture reserves and return to a plump texture.
- Water your orchids once every 7 days in Spring and Summer to avoid drought stress and once every 7-10 days in Fall and Winter. Watering with this frequency is key to avoiding drought stress and saving your orchid. Do not overcompensate and water more often than once per week as one extreme to the other is likely to cause root rot.
- I personally recommend Misting your orchids every day whilst they are recovering and then once every 2 or 3 days depending on the humidity of your climate and the room in which you keep the orchid (bathrooms and kitchens tend to have higher levels of humidity which suits the orchid).
- Misting your orchid emulates the higher levels of humidity of the orchid’s native tropical forest environment which helps to reduce water loss (transpiration) from the leaves to help alleviate drought stress.
- Ensure that your orchid is a a room that is consistently in the temperature range of 55°F (12°C) at night and a maximum daytime temperature of 75°F (23°C) as excess heat from indoor heating can increase the rate of evaporation from the soil and increase water loss from the leaves and exacerbate the drought stress for your orchid.
- Keep orchids out of the way of draughts or air conditioning as the dry air saps moisture away from the leaves, soil, and roots and it creates conditions that are contrary to their natural humid tropical environment.
With the right care, the orchid can be saved. However, the leaves that have turned yellow may drop off depending on the severity of the drought stress and some of the roots may not revive.
Ideally cut away any dead roots if possible with a pair of sharp, sterile scissors if they are accessible.
However, if they are deep in the orchid pot it is often better to leave it as roots that die from underwatering are not diseased (as may be the case with overwatered orchid roots) but rather have shriveled and died due to drought stress.
This way you do not have to disturb the healthy remaining roots too significantly, so the plant has a better chance of recovery.
In my experience, the orchid should show signs of new growth in the following weeks or if it is in Fall or Winter, by the following Spring time.
(Read my article, how to tell if an orchid is over or underwatered).
4. Low Humidity and Air Currents (Flowers and Buds Drop off)
Most household orchids are moth orchids which are native to tropical forests with a typical humidity level of 60-70%. Climates of low humidity and draughts from air conditioning can sap moisture from the orchid’s leaves causing them to lose too much water, resulting in a dying orchid.
The humidity in our homes is almost always much lower than outside and lower than the 60-70% humidity to which moth orchids are adapted.
Therefore this dry air increases the rate at which water is lost from the leaves, dries out the soil too quickly and causes the orchids roots to use their moisture reserves causing them to shrivel. This can also cause the leaves to turn yellow, the orchid droops and the flowers or flower buds can drop.
Draughts from air conditioning, or air currents caused by indoor heating also can cause orchids to shrivel up and die back.
How to Save Orchids Dying in Low Humidity
The key to saving orchids dropping flowers and dying in low humidity is to emulate the conditions of the orchid’s native environment. Mist the orchid leaves and roots once a day to prevent further excess water loss from the leaves and locate your orchid away from air currents and draughty areas.
Orchids are sensitive to low humidity and the first sign of stress is often dropping their flowers or developing flower buds.
Orchids are often well suited to bathrooms or kitchens as they are typically much higher in humidity than other rooms in the house. However, they can grow perfectly well if they are misted frequently.
In climates of particularly low humidity, I have found that it is necessary to mist orchids every day to recreate their preferred conditions.
Mist both the leaves and any roots that are outstretched from the potting medium as the roots can absorb moisture from water vapor which can help mitigate stress.
Ensuring that the orchid is out of the way of any draughts from air conditioning or doors that open frequently is a good way to help maintain the right level of humidity for your orchids and prevent dry air from sapping moisture.
Once the orchid is in the right environment with the right level of humidity, it can begin to recover over the following weeks.
5. Too Much or Not Enough Sunlight
Orchid leaves are very sensitive to light and can scorch to a yellow or brown color in direct sunlight. Orchids are adapted to the forest canopy so require partial sun or filtered light in the home to provide enough sun for flowering yet also protect the leaves from burning.
If your orchid is on a window sill with direct sunlight then this can burn the leaves, which can prevent the orchid from flowering or cause flowers and flower buds to drop off and cause similar symptoms to drought stress as the extra heat and light dry out the orchids roots and leaves.
If the orchid is in a room that experiences particularly low levels of light then I find the orchid typically displays far fewer flowers and may have stunted growth.
The best place for orchids is an area of bright, indirect light or an area of filtered light as this replicates the levels of light intensity typically experienced in the native environment and ensures the orchid has enough light for flowering.
If the leaves do turn a brown or yellow color then the specific leaves are unlikely to recover and usually turn brown before dropping off.
Do not try to force a dying leaf off as this can create an unnecessary wound in which infection can cause more harm to the plant.
Place the orchid in an area of bright, indirect light, mist the leaves, and water thoroughly once a week and the orchid should be able to recover with new leaves emerging from the base of the plant in Spring and Summer.
6. Hot and Cold Temperatures- Dying Orchids
Moth orchids require a temperature range of 55°F (12°C) at night and a maximum daytime temperature of 75°F (23°C). If orchids are exposed to temperatures outside of this range the orchid can drop flowers, stop growing, turn yellow, and droop with a dying appearance.
Orchids are not only sensitive to extremes of temperature but they are also particularly sensitive to sudden fluctuations in temperature which can be caused by the opening and closing of an outside door that lets all the cold air in, causing the temperature to suddenly drop.
Fortunately, 55°F (12°C) and 75°F (23°C) is typically within the bounds of room temperature, so it is often not the problem.
However, in my experience, it is common to see individual orchid leaves dying as the orchid is on a window sill and the leaves are in contact with a cold window frame which can cause the leaf to turn brown or yellow.
Also, orchids that are too close to sources of heat in the home often drop their flowers or developing flower buds if the temperature increases significantly.
The only real solution to this is to relocate your orchid to a room that has the right temperature range and is not subject to frequent draughts or heat which can significantly alter the temperature.
Any damaged leaves may die back and fall off however new leaves can emerge in the main growing season.
If excess heat was the problem then look for signs of drought stress as increased temperatures are likely to dry the orchid out much quicker.
Mist spray the leaves and give the orchid a good soak to help it recover.
7. Causes of Dying Orchids- Crown Rot
Orchid leaves can form a funnel shape around the stems which collects water and can prevent it from draining away. The stagnant water contained in the funnel can cause crown rot which causes the orchid’s leaves and stems to turn yellow and wilt with a dying appearance.
This does not necessarily occur with every orchid but often the way the leaves are shaped and arranged can cause water to pool around the crown of the orchid.
In the phalaenopsis orchid’s native environment, it grows on trees usually at an angle of around 45° which allows any water to safely drain away from the crown rather than getting trapped by the leaves
In the household environment orchids are grown vertically and therefore, overhead watering onto the leaves channels the water onto the crown of the orchid without having a chance to drain away effectively.
This is why I recommend watering at the base of the plant directly onto the potting medium rather than overhead onto the leaves.
If you do accidentally pour water onto the leaves and it collects in the crown then my best tip that I use is to use a hairdryer on a cool setting to help dry out the crown.
Saving an orchid with crown rot can be very difficult as the fungal pathogens responsible for the disease can spread around other organs of the plant. However, with some drastic action, there is a chance it can be saved.
As saving an orchid with crown rot is a tricky, visual process to explain I recommend watching the video for a visual guide on how to save orchids with crown rot:
8. Too Much or Not Enough Fertilizer- Dying Orchids
Orchid roots are very sensitive and can easily burn if you apply a regular houseplant fertilizer or use fertilizer too often or in too high concentration which causes the roots to turn dark brown or black depending on the severity of the root burn.
I recommend always using a specific orchid fertilizer as they are formulated to provide the orchid with the right balance of nutrients at the right concentration.
If there is only mild damage to the roots with some discoloration then you can save the orchid by leaving the orchid in a basin of water for 10 minutes or so or running the faucet over the potting medium to help dilute the excess salts from the fertilizer which cause the damage.
For more severe root burn it is necessary to remove the orchid from the pot and cut away any dead or dying roots from the orchid with a sterile pair of scissors or pruners.
Repot your orchid with a new pine bark-based potting medium as the old potting medium is likely to contain a high concentration of harmful salts from the use of fertilizer.
If there are enough viable healthy green (or light gray) roots that feel firm then the orchid has a good chance of being saved. However, if most of the roots are thin, papery, and dying then the orchid can be difficult to save.
Give the orchid a thorough watering after repotting and ensure the pot has drainage holes in the base to prevent root rot.
(Read my article, How to Care for Orchids Indoors).
- Overwatering and the wrong potting medium promote the conditions for root rot which causes orchids to turn yellow, wilt, and die back. Orchids prefer to grow in 60-70% humidity. Low humidity saps moisture from the leaves and roots which causes the orchid to wilt and die.
- Moth orchids grow best in a pine-based potting medium, as the aerated well-draining structure recreates the typical growing conditions of the orchid’s native environment. Moss and soil-based mediums retain too much moisture and restrict air flow which causes root rot resulting in a wilting and dying orchid.
- If orchids or not watered often enough or watered too lightly, the roots shrivel and die, causing the orchid’s leaves to turn yellow with a dying appearance. Orchids should be watered thoroughly once a week in the Spring and Summer and every 7-10 days in the Fall and Winter to avoid dying from drought stress.
- Draughts and air currents from air conditioning or sources of heat sap moisture from orchid leaves and roots which causes them to wilt, turn yellow, die back, and the flowers or developing flower buds to drop off. Mist orchids regularly to increase humidity and prevent flowers from dropping.
- Orchids naturally grow in forest canopies and are very sensitive to direct sunlight. Too much sun causes orchid leaves to turn a scorched yellow or brown color and the leaves dry out and drop off. Intense sun also causes flowers to drop and can exacerbate symptoms of drought stress.
- Orchids grow best in a temperature range of 55°F (12°C) and 75°F (23°C). If the temperature is too hot or too cold the orchid leaves turn yellow and the flowers drop off. Orchids are sensitive to significant fluctuations in temperature from draughts or indoor heating which can cause them to die back.
- Watering orchids overhead can cause the leaves to channel water onto the crown of the plant which causes the leaves and stems of the orchid to turn yellow and die of crown rot. The crown rot spreads to other parts of the orchid if left untreated killing the roots and causing the orchid to die back.
- House plant fertilizer is too strong for orchids and burns the roots. If the root burn is severe the orchid’s roots die back and can no longer uptake moisture and nutrients to transport around the orchid which results in the leaves and stems turning yellow, flowers dropping and the orchid dying back.