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We have been caring for an orchid and trying to rehabilitate it. We are not orchid experts. It arrived almost a year ago, with only 2 leaves, no aerial roots, and was a bit wobbly in its pot, so we suspected the roots structure underground was weak. It's doing better now (see picture below), but my girlfriend just noticed this week that it has NO underground roots - I didn't see it but she said it was just a stump that the leaves came out of, nothing below to hold it in the mulch. The mulch at the top of the pot was bone dry, and the mulch at the bottom was very soggy. So we "repotted" it in a cereal bowl, temporarily. The pot it came in was tall and narrow, but I'm not sure that's a good idea if it has no roots. How can I properly rehabilitate this orchid?

Here's what it looks like now:

orchid in cereal bowl

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It appears you have a specimen of Phalaenopsis sp. also known as moth orchid.

Your particular specimen, judging by the photo included in your question, has strong new root growth. This is encouraging - you have been doing something right.

From Wikipedia...

Phalaenopsis are among the most popular orchids sold as potted plants, owing to the ease of propagation and flowering under artificial conditions.

In nature, Phalaenopsis thrive in temperatures around 20 to 35 °C (68 to 95 °F), but are adaptable to conditions more comfortable for human habitation in temperate zones 15 to 30 °C (59 to 86 °F). Note that at temperatures below 18 °C (64.4 °F) overwatering causes root rot. Phalaenopsis requires high humidity (60–70%) and low light of 12,000 to 20,000 lux.

Phalaenopsis drop their blooms as spring turns to summer and then begin their growth season. Expect them to spike again with the onset of the chill of early fall/autumn and bloom again in the following late winter or spring.

From http://www.ranwild.org/Phalaenopsis/module/introduction/intro1/Eenvironhead.html

Phalaenopsis is an epiphytic plant with roots that run on tree trunks and branches. It is different from parasitic plants in that genus Phalaenopsis does not drain the mother plant of nutrients. Epiphytic orchids have a symbiotic relationship with one type of fungi and form orchid mycorrhiza in the root cells. The orchid provides the fungi with sugars produced by photosynthesis, while the fungi give the orchid the nitrogen compounds (mainly nitrogen and phosphorus) produced when the sugars are broken down by the fungal enzymes. The orchid produces the organic substance (carbohydrates and vitamins) by itself through photosynthesis, which is the difference between it and parasitic plants.

Phalaenopsis species grow even with the bare-root hanging in the air if enough moisture can be provided. In nature, Phalaenopsis exposes their roots to air and adheres to the host trunk tree to obtain moisture from temporal rainwater that runs down the host tree. The high humidity at night in the rainforest minimizes the moisture loss from their leaves and assists the respiration.

How does this information translate into plant care? Read on...

We need to attempt to replicate the plants natural habitat as best as practically possible.

I strongly recommend that you do not use potting mix to grow this plant. This will at the very least stagnate the growth of your orchid and most likely lead to its early demise. Generally a very free draining “orchid mix” potting medium will be suitable. The contents will vary greatly depending on where you are located in the world - the medium may contain course bark, perlite, vermiculite, different types of moss, course coconut fibre, charcoal, cork. Many people grow Phalaenopsis in only sphagnum moss, although a common mistake is to pack it too tightly around the roots, which creates an environment with too much moisture and not enough air.

A small pot is all that is required. As the plant grows and the root system develops, you may need to repot your orchid. Repotting is more to ensure the medium is of good quality and less to accommodate the plant, which in nature literally grows on the surface of the bark of the host tree.

Phalaenopsis growing on cork with a little sphagnum moss against the roots Phalaenopsis growing on cork with a little sphagnum moss against the roots

Cold conditions slow growth and can damage flowers, so keep the plant away from:

  • glass, which can get cold overnight;
  • air-conditioners and draughts, which cause accelerated evaporation and low humidity.

To achieve the required humidity, stand the pot on a tray of pebbles and fill the tray with water. The pebbles keep the pot out of the water and allow the potting medium to completely drain after each watering.

To achieve the required light, place the plant in a brightly lit warm spot out of direct sunlight.

To achieve the required nutrient supply, feed with a soluble orchid fertiliser per the recommendations on the packet. Separately and in between these “feeds”, apply a tonic of half strength liquid soil bacteria and liquid seaweed / kelp extract.

To start, water more in the growing season (every 7 days) and less in the dormant season (every 14 days). Your careful observation and discretion is required however so keep an eye on the potting medium and adjust the frequency so it does not dry out, although recognise that it is important for the plant’s health to experience wet and dry conditions. Remember that prolonged damp conditions around the roots might lead to root rot.

  • Following your advice. Two of the leaves seem a little "soft", but the new leaf is still growing, as are the air roots, so I'm not going to panic just yet. – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 20 '18 at 15:58
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    Yes, don’t panic - easy to write but difficult to accomplish. Don’t concern yourself too much with the older leaves - it is the healthy growth of new roots that are most important, which should lead to one or two new leaves every year. While gardening has taught me some “beginners” patience, my orchids are my true zen master of time and observation :) – andrewbuilder Apr 23 '18 at 7:35
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Epiphytes like this orchid don't have underground roots. They have aerial roots which allow them to attach to branches. They can absorb water from the air, and whatever minimal nutrition is available high in the canopy. They also absorb from their leaves.

There's no need to bury anything. Just mist the leaves and roots with an orchid mix.

  • For future reference, would it work to just leave the orchid hanging from a string and mist it as needed? I'm thinking this might be interesting to do in the bathroom. It's bright, but not directly, and humid from everyone showering in there. – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 20 '18 at 16:01
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Get a little pot with a drainage hole. Not much bigger than that cereal bowl. Purchase sterilized Orchid potting soil or just plain potting soil. Look for soil that has not had fertilizer or moisture holding gimmicks added. You want to know when and what you add in terms of chemistry/fertilizer. Later, not now.

Add the soil to the pot with no rock or gravel at the bottom. Firm the soil, water the soil and plant your little orchid right on top. The root system obviously is very shallow. Try not to move your orchid. It likes steady state environment. No surprises.

To enhance drainage, lift the bottom of the pot off of the saucer or surface using bits of 1/4" tile or stones? Only water when your plant in its pot feels light when you lift it.

Where are you keeping this plant? What light is this plant receiving? Where is it you live on this planet? How much light do you get during the day...in hours? Right now you are drowning this little plant...the cereal bowl doesn't have a drain hole, yes? No?

Once your plant is putting down roots (and yes, your plant is exhibiting aerial roots) in the soil and gets a bit more acclimated, then you have to add a bit of balanced fertilizer.

  • Currently live in the northern hemisphere, near the Great Lakes so it's getting > 12 hours of natural daylight (not direct light, but bright), plus the light from the kitchen light. The cereal bowl has no drainage holes, but it's only been there 2 days, and was only watered lightly to moisten the mulch. I've heard of special pots for orchids (usually with holes along the sides) - are they worth it, or is the standard green plastic pot OK for this case? How long might it take to develop ground roots? How much/little should I water the soil in the pot to avoid rot? – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 6 '18 at 4:40
  • Frustrated, I would just get a clay pot...6" maximum diameter. Plain plain cheapo potting soil. – stormy Apr 6 '18 at 5:36
  • Your orchid is in bit of hibernation as it has registered the daylight hours and has been told so to speak to shut down and watch out for too cold temperatures. Good time to transplant. I know plants, not so much Orchids and their special needs. Right now it needs to be repotted in potting soil, regular but not too much water (I would purchase distilled water instead of tap water). You can get into the details about orchids later. Looks healthy! Should be able to keep it that way. Transplant into potting soil. A pot with a hole. Tile pieces beneath for drainage. – stormy Apr 6 '18 at 5:38

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