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I'm charged with keeping these two orchids alive this summer. Neither look really great right now. The first is a phalaenopsis that was a Christmas gift with beautiful blooms in December. moth orchid

The second is several years old, and has a tag that says Lc. Maxima's Aflect 'Arbec' orchid

Both look kind of leathery and the second one has some yellowing of two leaves.

They are indoors, in good indirect light.

What is the best way to water and how often? What else can I do to at least maintain them?

(I don't have a good track record with orchids.)

  • What mix are they in, when was it last changed, what do the roots look like, and do you have any orchid fertiliser? Yours look like they've had too much sun. – Graham Chiu Jun 8 '16 at 7:25
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Both of those orchids are extremely dehydrated. I don't know about the second one, but the first one isn't going to plump back out. Any new leaves will be full, but the ones that are severely wrinkled are going to stay that way.

Most orchids are epiphytes. That means that they grow in trees. The reason for this is that they get an advantage over the plants growing on the ground. They get more light, without having to expend the energy growing as tall. Most of them grow in trees, but the canopy of those trees also shades them and keeps them in low light. There also usually high humidity and frequent rain falls. Depending on the area where the plants came from, they could see constant rainfall all year long or it could be seasonal.

Keeping that in mind, what does that mean for the home environment. Most homes are low humidity environments. We keep them that way on purpose, because it prevents mold growth and rotting in our homes. We're also not comfortable at those higher humidity levels. It feels sticky and gross to us. So you'll be fighting that right off the bat. There are a few ways to help counteract this. Of course you can mist the plant, but that only helps for a short period of time. Once that small amount of water evaporates, you lose all benefit of having done it. A humidifier in the room with the plants isn't a bad idea, but if you don't use distilled water in them, they can leave hard water residue all over the room where the mist settles. That could be more money than you wanted to put into a baby sitting project. Any easier way is to either put them with a lot of other plants and they'll raise the humidity as a group or put evaporation trays under them. The group of plants will loose water into the air, which is all humidity is and they'll all increase the humidity together. A simulation of that would be the evaporation tray.

Lots of people take a large drip tray and put gravel in it. The set the pot on the gravel. This keeps the pot out of the water and keeps you from over watering your plant. However, the more rocks the less room for water you have. I would just put some kind of spacer for the pot to sit on and you'll have to refill the water less often. As it evaporates into the air, it will increase the humidity to a degree.

Next is watering. You'll see many store bought plants that have tags saying to just put a couple of ice cubes in every week and the plant will be fine. If anyone stops to think about it, you're taking a tropical plant and putting ice on it's roots. That's not a solid plan. I assume the theory is that the ice slowly melts over a period of time and gives the roots a chance to absorb the smaller amount of liquid. It's not a bad plan, except the cold damage you cause.

Instead, think of how they manage in the wild. Again, they're up in the trees. They're probably growing in the crotch of the tree if they aren't a climbing plant, because that's where the windblown seed would have been caught. They grow clinging to the bark. There may be a small amount of nutrients from plant matter that has decayed after being caught in the same crotch, but that'll be sporadic. They also get flushes with rain on a regular basis. Maybe multiple times a day. So with the plants only having access to water on very short spurts, the plants have adapted to catch a lot of water quickly. On the Phalaenopsis you'll see really fat healthy roots. Not like the dead air root you have pictured.

Those fat roots aren't the actual roots. They are dead tissue over the actual root, which is like a small white thread. They act like a sponge and soak up rain water. Then they hold it against the roots till they absorb what they need.

Orchid roots are highly adaptable. They can grow into many different environments, that you might think would be harsh on an orchid and be fine in that environment. The only key to remember is that they have to adapt to that environment and once they do, they're stuck with it. You change that environment and they begin to die. That's why when you repot, you wait for sign of new root growth. As they grow, they'll adapt to the new media and replace the old roots, which will die off. This is true even when going to a newer version of the same media as the plant has grown roots used to the old media that is breaking down. The only case where this probably wouldn't be true is like with semi-hydroponics.

Their basic requirements are plenty of air around the roots (just like when they're in the trees), frequent short bursts of rain they can catch, and a smattering of nutrients that are carried in the rain water or washed down the tree, low light to simulate the tree canopy, and high humidity.

As an orchid care giver, you need to simulate this to the best of your ability. So, bright indirect sunlight, frequent short waterings, small amounts of nutrients, and high humidity. Being honest, we won't be able to meet all of these to the plants perfect satisfaction. We aren't going to raise the humidity in the house till it begins to rot to satisfy the orchid. We also aren't going to be watering an indoor orchid 5-6 times a day. Because of this, we make compromises and come up with solutions that will keep the orchid healthy while inconveniencing us less.

Each plants care and preferences will differ and you'll have to use experience and research to determine what the best solution is for you. I could tell you how I do my orchids in the southeast, but if you live in the southwest, it probably won't work for you, because it's much dryer and less humid than here.

You should let your friend know that you've gone on this site and someone told you that the orchids were in poor condition. Make sure they understand that you're not familiar with orchids and that while you'll take the best care of them that you can, they may not make it. If they aren't comfortable with that, then they need to find someone else. Next, you need to ask them how they've been caring for them. That will give you a good starting point as you begin to change things for them.

The first thing to check is the plant and the media it's in. Look the plants over and check to see if you see any signs of rot or disease. The yellowing leaves can stay on as long as they aren't rotting. They should dry up and come loose easily. Currently, they're just aesthetically displeasing, but aren't detrimental to the plant. If they really bother you, you can use a pair of sterilized scissors and remove them. Then check the media. I don't know what media you're using, but it'll make a huge difference in how the plants are treated.

For the phal, it looks like a set up I've gotten before. They put the orchid in bark or a bark sphagnum mix, inside of a plastic orchid pot. They set this inside of the taller decorative pot. There also appears to be some decorative sphagnum moss on top as well. This isn't necessarily a bad setup. The decorative pot does two things. It provides weight to keep the plant from tipping over and also creates some humidity by preventing water from escaping in all directions. The only thing to remember is that it probably doesn't have a drain hole. To water plants in a setup like this, I typically just fill them to the rim with water and let them soak for a while. 30min-1hr. Then I pull the pot out and let it drain in the sink. I dump out the decorative pot. I then run water through the plastic pot and allow it to drain before putting it back in the tall decorative pot. There is usually space at the bottom of the decorative pot to allow some draining without having the water touch the plants pot.

The reason I run water through and you should too, is because of the reason mentioned before. Orchids typically get very few nutrients in the wild. While it's our natural inclination to think more nutrients equal a better plant, this is only true in a limited sense. Orchids do need nutrients to thrive and I recommend providing them in the form of a non-urea orchid fertilizer. I even recommend cutting the recommended dose in half and fertilizing them once a week for three weeks. However, on that fourth week, you need to flush with clean, pure water. The reason is that the nutrients and salts can build up in the media and actually harm the plants roots. A good flushing (aka running water through the pot, helps break down these minerals and flush them out to prevent this. I mentioned non-urea above. Basically, there are fertilizers for plants that are coated in this to cause them to release the nutrients over time as it dissolves from waterings. However, orchid media is so loose and you water so much more frequently, that it gets flushed before the plant can absorb and utilize it. So try to get an orchid fertilizer that says no urea. Also, don't waste your money on bloom boosters. The plant will get the nutrients it needs from the regular fertilizer and every plant will try it's darndest to propagate and put out flowers.

Your media will determine your watering schedule to an extent. Remember that your plants need plenty of air around their roots. So medias you can get are usually a combination of water retention and chucky materials that provide air flow. The most common chunky material is medium-coarse orchid bark and the most common water retention material is sphagnum moss. Not to be confused with Spanish moss or sphagnum peat moss. Long Fiber Sphagnum (LFS) is actually the dried form of the living sphagnum moss plant. Some people use live sphagnum, but that's more for carnivorous plants and you really need greenhouse conditions for it to live. When it the sphagnum moss begins to decay and break down, it turns into sphagnum peat moss over a very long time. For orchid purposes, though, just use the LFS.

The ratio will depend on your environment and time. If you add more LFS, then you don't have to water as often. Too much, though, and you can rot your roots and block off air flow. Some people can successfully grow in straight LFS or straight orchid bark. As a matter of fact, some people mount orchids on wood and can grow them like that. Just remember that the less water retention you have, the more frequently you have to water. I have one mounted orchid in the house and it needs to be watered twice a day. That's really more than I want to do and it gets harder the more orchids you have.

The pot will determine the ratio as well. For instance, a clay pot can loose water from the side as well as from the top, so it'll dry out a lot faster. This can be an asset to plants that like to dry slightly between watering. On the other hand, if you have an orchid that never likes to completely dry out, you could use a glazed orchid pot. This would help prevent loss through evaporation. Holes in the sides of these pots are great for providing air flow to the roots, but can also cause quicker evaporation. You just have to experiment.

You should talk to the owner before repotting and watch lots of youtube videos, but I'd suggest repotting and adding some sphagnum moss. I'd start watering much more often until then. You can also keep them in their same media and just really up the watering schedule. Maybe every day or every other day till you see some improvement and then back it down slowly. I wouldn't soak them, just run water through. Remember that as long as air can get to the roots and they aren't holding water, then you can watering them multiple times a day even with no ill effect. The only thing to remember when watering is to not get water in the crown. This is the top of the plant where new growth is coming from. If you get water here, it can cause rot and, almost always, when you get rot in the crown, the plant is as good as dead, because even if it doesn't kill it, it won't grow from that point.

It's less of an issue in a house, because air circulation and lower humidity causes it to dry out pretty well, but it can still happen in a house. If you do get water sitting in the crown, then just twist up a square of toilet paper and stick in in there. It'll absorb it up.

Good luck and I hope these orchids thrive under your care so you can give the person back a much better plant than they got.

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The second pic looks like it has not had enough water. The bottom part of each stem should be swollen with moisture.

Different people water them different ways. But the orchids come from high humidity, low-light jungles mostly. So...

  • Mist them every day with clean water without chlorine or chloramines, not tap water.
  • To water you can pour clean non-city water over them once a week, or soak them in a pan of clean water for 5 minutes. The pan should be filled up 3-4 inches so the roots will be under water for a few minutes.
  • They can be in indirect sun but NOT direct sun. I've seen orchids thrive and rebloom in a bathroom with a small window. Both the low indirect light, and the humidity, really helps them. I was jealous. :)

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