Help me save my orchid!
April 26, 2011 5:22 PM   Subscribe

What's wrong with my orchid?

The weekend before last, my boyfriend and I went to a local orchid show for the eye candy and just to learn more. Neither of us know much about orchids, but we've managed not to swiftly kill any of the standard phalaenopsis types we've gotten from Trader Joe's.

We ended up buying one at this show--the tag says "Lc. Fire Dance 'Patricia' (c. aurantica x Fire Island)". I have never seen it at the grocery store so I was seduced by the exotic factor. Anyway, we've had it barely over a week and it's falling to pieces--literally! The blooms seem to have dried up, turned black and fallen off--about one a day at this point. This is what they are SUPPOSED to look like (you can see a sad little dying one in the background). :( Some of the stalks are getting black and dry, others are puckered--the leaves feel dry and one is yellow and waxy.

Part of me thinks maybe we just got a lemon, but when we bought it the dude looked at the $25 price tag and looked surprised. We were like, "Is there a problem?" And he just sorta brushed it off and said, "Oh, nah--I just didn't know this was priced like this, you're gettin a deal." So obviously we were stoked but now we're afraid we'll have to toss it by week's end!

Like I said, I know next to nothing about orchids, but I am pretty sure we watered it right (it's in bark, not moss)--I wonder if we put it too close to the window but I thought they liked sun?? Is it just starting the dying process early and will come back next year (assuming we treat it right till then)? Please help!! If I can't keep a plant alive I wonder about my potential abilities to raise pets and children! I'm sure there are factors I'm not thinking to include here, so I'll check this often to see if there are any questions regarding what we did. Thanks in advance!!
posted by lovableiago to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The problem is that you haven't hit the goldilocks point of watering. It is either too much or too little water.

Read up here for details on how to tell which it is and what to do.
posted by srboisvert at 5:37 PM on April 26, 2011

How much are you watering it? Which direction does the window face?

It probably needs less water than you think it does but if you overwater the roots can die and if you underwater it'll shrivel up - it will also shrivel if the roots are dead/dying.

The flowers do die eventually and sometimes a leaf turns yellow and falls off. But it won't go into hibernation or anything and then come back.

If you want to google for info its a Laelocattleya. The Garden Web orchid forum FAQ is a good place to start.

Don't dismay the only way to learn to grow orchids is to kill some.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 5:47 PM on April 26, 2011

What is the potting medium? Bark? Is it damp a couple days after watering it? Looks like it could be root rot. Google "semihydroponics and orchids" for what always worked for me.
posted by mckenney at 5:48 PM on April 26, 2011

Response by poster: this is the boyfriend now. it's in a south facing window and has only been watered once within the week and a half that we have owned it. the potting medium is bark and we just looked at the roots and they appear to be brittle and dry. we just want this little guy to live a happy little orchid life and not kill it. because killing pretty flowers is bad.
posted by lovableiago at 5:55 PM on April 26, 2011

Thats probably not enough water if it's in a sunny south facing window.

Stick your finger into the pot, on the side away from the plant, and see if its damp, also if you can feel pieces of bark. Sometimes the bark in the middle breaks down into sludge and holds water too long.

One trick to get the watering right is to put a bamboo skewer into the pot next to the plant and then pulling it out to see if its wet/dry so you know when to water the plant.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 5:59 PM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: thanks spacewarp. we were told that if we were going to do anything that we should do it before noon so i'll check it out and medicate the sick little guy if needed tomorrow.
posted by lovableiago at 6:08 PM on April 26, 2011

I can't answer your question, but be assured that children are far easier to keep alive than orchids.
posted by lilnublet at 6:09 PM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hmm, the puckering I have not ever seen before! Water more frequently but with less water at a time, I would say. I can't imagine it's not a sign of dehydration. (For watering comparison, I was giving my various orchids a splash two to three times a day in the summer particularly--just to dampen the roots. I have a little shooty-streamy water thing I keep around for them, whether they're in bark or just hanging out, so whenever I'm smoking or puttering, I give them a little bit. I rarely let them go a day without water; even in winter they get a little maybe twice a day.)

Your orchid is not showing signs of "burning" yet, on the leaves, but it is quite likely to be accustomed from the grower's to very full bright shade, rather than direct sun. Lots of these plants are grown under that black "sun shade" netting, which keeps them from burning but lets them get lots of light. So when we take them home, and they get a little sun, they panic. And I would say your plant is panicked, but definitely salvageable.

As someone who has killed both orchids and pets, I can promise that sometimes there is nothing you can do--but also, often you can help them pull through, and I think the prognosis is good in your case.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:29 PM on April 26, 2011

Also, make sure it's out of direct sunlight. South facing windows can get pretty hot and scorching, diffuse light is what you want for orchids.
posted by lydhre at 6:30 PM on April 26, 2011

Cattleyas generally like bright light, but that doesn't mean direct sunlight - protect from sunburn. Growers' shade cloth can block out (typically) anywhere between 30 and 80% of energy, so shoot for something that might be characterized as the shadiest place outside on a bright sunny day. Humidity is important, so consider placing the entire pot in an oversized tray with a little gravel in it. As solar energy increases, so should humidity.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:34 PM on April 26, 2011

Orchids are so picky. I've had one now for about 10 years, and have created a couple of babies with it...but damned if they all didn't try to die when we moved last fall.

I've managed to bring them back from the brink, by putting them *near* a southern window, and watering from the bottom, as though they were violets. Mine prefer soil that is dampish, but not wet. I think, but am not sure, that most orchids are tropical plants. I treat mine like they are, and they seem to survive the years.

Does your bathroom get humid when you shower? If so, take her in there with you, she'll perk up faster. At least mine do. Perhaps I have pervert orchids. I dunno.
posted by dejah420 at 7:48 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sometimes a change in growing conditions causes shock that can result in the loss of a leaf or two. Also, the leaves on older pseudobulbs sometimes just fall off due to age. I'll nth the idea that your guy isn't happy with the watering situation. Beware of keeping it too wet. Too much water leads to rot of the roots, which will paradoxically make your orchid get dry & shriveled since it can't take in the water it needs. Catts & associated hybrids can take a fair amount of sun. Usually, if they get too much sun the leaves take on a black or purplish tinge before turning khaki beige. That shade of yellow makes me suspect watering and/or shock.

Important: Let it dry out completely between waterings. Soak it once a week and let it go bone dry until the next time. If it's hot, water twice a week. Orchids live on trees, so they aren't sitting in a water-logged medium all the time. They get drenched every so often and need to dry out in between.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 8:41 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You can't kill a cattleya-type orchid (which is what a Laelocattleya is) in two weeks without doing something drastic, like using salty water or putting it outside in full sun with no water.

Cattleya flowers do not last nearly as long as phals do. They last a few weeks as opposed to a few months. What happened with the flowers looks normal to me.

If you are used to Trader Joe's phals in moss you need to change your watering habits. I have a few dozen cattleyas in either fir bark or Hydroton-brand clay pellets, and I water them once a week by *immersing* the entire pot in water and letting them sit for 5 minutes to an hour. Often longer, if I forget. It's OK, just don't have them sitting in water for more than, oh... 12 hours, I'd say. By the next week, the bark should be dry. If it is not, the bark is rotting and needs to be changed. Most orchids die because the bark or media rots, stays wet, and kills the roots.

I use clear plastic pots like these :
because it makes it easy to see the condition of the roots and medium.
posted by splicer at 8:45 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: thank you all for the tips and suggestions. please keep them coming. my girlfriend and i are amateurs when it comes to orchids and really appreciate the help. even if this little guy does give up the ghost, we'll keep on keeping on until we get it right. with your help, of course. because we'll need it. or at least i will. because she's much smarter than i am. and less needy.
posted by lovableiago at 9:44 PM on April 26, 2011

If you find the problem is uneven moisture (bark I find will dry out quite a bit on top but be fine a few inches down) try keeping a sprayer handy to mist the leaves when the bark is getting on the dry side, but not dry enough to fully water. And I completely agree with splicer; you need to immerse the pot, let it sit for a minute or two to let the bark soak up some, and then make sure it sits somewhere the excess water cam completely run out. If it's sitting in a decorative pot cover, any excess sitting stagnant will kill the bottom-most roots. Make sure the water is a nice room-temp, leaning on lukewarm. Cold water will shock blooms and leaves right off. Don't give up on the little guy either, if my trial and error has taught me anything it's that a very dead looking orchid will come back as soon as you decide to bury it (so of course you stop ignoring it, and it promptly dies again.. probably out of spite.)
posted by Carlotta Bananas at 6:43 AM on April 27, 2011

Also, I don't have personal experience with cattlyas specifically, but I'm pretty sure the puckered stalks are a sign of dehydration, they're supposed to be fat with water stores. Like a camel. I think.
posted by Carlotta Bananas at 6:45 AM on April 27, 2011

Best answer: It looks like it's really drying out. This is probably due to a combination of low indoor humidity and/or not enough water. Water it by putting it in the sink, and completely drenching the entire plant with filtered water. Orchids come from tropical areas, and should be watered freely from top to bottom for best results. Then keep it on a wet pebble tray for humidity, mist whenever you get a chance (and/or get a cool mist humidifier). You want to keep the pebbles moist even as you allow the roots and potting medium to nearly completely dry. They also do not tolerate stagnant air, so keep a window cracked or a fan gently moving air. The frequency of drenching will vary sue to heat, humidity, and potting medium. You shouldn't worry too much about overdoing it as long as you: have good air circulation, allow the medium to dry out (the chopstick or pencil test is a good one), and the plants never sit in water. Keep the pot above the water line of the pebbles. No direct south sun, morning sun is fine. If you can only have it in a south window, filter the light with a sheer curtain.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:45 PM on April 27, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone that answered! We have the little guy in a south-facing window with the blinds down but open, and we soak it in a thing of water for 5-10 minutes every other day. It is doing SO much better--the stalks aren't puckered anymore. The roots are also full, green, and healthy. We even have two new stalks coming up from the bark so I guess we're everything right now! :)
posted by lovableiago at 12:19 PM on June 9, 2011

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