How to soothe a resentful orchid?
February 23, 2007 9:45 PM   Subscribe

Help! My orchid is cranky and I don't know how to help it be happy.

The History: The afflicted orchid is a Cattleya cross (Trick or Treat). I bought it about a year ago, at a farmers market, when I lived in the bay area. At that point, it had a group of blossoms and was very happy ... until late May, when I left it alone in my apartment for four very hot days. The flowers shriveled up and turned black, I pinched them off, everything seemed to be fine. Two new stems sprouted and grew a pair of leaves each by mid-September.
Then I moved out of my very bright, diffusely illuminated apartment and lived in a very shady back bedroom at a friend's house for about six weeks. Growth seemed to stop, but the plant seemed fine.
Next, I drove across the country, with another two-week hiatus in a moderately lit room in the middle of the country. The plant never stayed outside overnight during the roadtrip, but it did experience a few mornings of sub-freezing chilliness before the car got warm inside.

The Problem: Now, in CT, my orchid is cranky. One of the two new stalks has withered away, and the biggest stalk (the one that had the flowers on it when I got it) looks sickly. Instead of smooth, AskMe-green, the large leaves are developing longitudinal ridges/wrinkles and a more leathery surface. There is also a yellow cast to those two leaves.

Maintenance Info: Throughout my orchid-ownership, I've been feeding it with 20:20:20(aq) every 7-10 days, with excellent drainage. The pot gets pretty dried out between waterings. The instructions that the farmers-market-guy gave me included misting the buds and blossoms every morning, and I continue to give the plant a light mist every day even though there are no flowers.
I suspect that the light level might be the problem, but I don't have a lot of window options, and the brightest (north-facing) windows come with hot winds from the heating system. Right now, the plant is in a east-facing window that isn't drafty.

Am I doing something wrong, or is the orchid punishing me for moving it? I'd love specific suggestions on how to restore this plant.
posted by janell to Home & Garden (6 answers total)
Best answer: This could be a lot of things. The discoloring and wilt on the leaves could be root issues (roots rotting, infected with one thing or another, thus the foliage is effectively dying), it could be a disease of the leaf itself, though what you describe sounds more like systemic issues. Yellowing could also be fertilizer poisoning; if you've never repotted it, salts from the fertilizers just build up in the medium.

If there isn't some systemic sickness, you put that orchid through a lot of significant stresses (particularly going from one extreme to another and exposing it to subzero cold) and its conditions now are very suboptimal. Cattleyas are a light-loving species and orchids generally like warm, humid environments.

You could try: repotting. Remove it gently from the pot and get rid of the excess media. If the roots are badly rotted - if it has basically lost its root system - it is probably not worth trying to save. Otherwise, prune anything in the root system that looks soft, diseased or necrotic. Replant it in fresh media in a new pot - upsize if it seemed rootbound. Do let it get fully dry between waterings, this is a main defense against rot, but water it well (drench it) when you do. Give it as much light as you can, up the humidity and warmth where it lives if you can.

Honestly, those leathery/yellowing leaves sound like classic sick/dying orchid and there is a reasonable chance it just isn't going to make it. Take my advice with a grain of salt because (after working for an orchid nursery as a germination lab technician many years ago) I eventually gave up keeping orchids in my MN home. Not because it is impossible for them to do well, but because it was more work than I wanted to put into houseplants. These things are tended in greenhouse conditions to put out some nice big spikes with plenty of buds but it is usually devilishly difficult to get a vigorous (if any!) flowering out of them in a temperate indoor environment. Personally I think to really thrive tropical species need supplemental light in northern climes. Finally, there are nurseries that board exotics but that's only if you're really emotionally attached to this plant. But the real fanatics I met in my tour through the orchid world would have pro growers pamper them to boost their health and get them to put out some really showy flowers.
posted by nanojath at 11:04 PM on February 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Seconding the repotting advice, and I'd suggest using a slightly larger pot in case it wants to stretch out a bit. You might also try moving it to the north facing windows, and either using a humidifier near the plant or putting a dish of water between the plant and the heat source to help humidify it. I agree that it might be circling the drain, but nanojath's excellent suggestions might revive it. I've got several orchids now that seem to thrive on neglect but I've killed my share as well. Good luck with it.
posted by Kangaroo at 7:46 AM on February 24, 2007

I think those cold mornings probably got to it. It's not easy for people to grok orchids because they often respond slowly (compared to other houseplants) to conditions. So the whole cause/effect thing is hard to figure out, until it's too late.

This doesn't have much to do with your current issue, but: you're fertilizing it way too often. Half the recommended measurement of a nitrogen fertilizer (appropriate for orchids) two to three times a year is plenty. Most Cattleya species are epiphytes; they grow in trees and get their nutrients from rainwater and decomposing bark and plant material. Repotting as the orchid grows into a good orchid bark mixture provides a lot of what the orchid needs already. More is not a good thing- forcing unnatural weak growth makes plants more susceptible to disease and pests.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:09 AM on February 24, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, nanojath, Kangaroo, and oneirodynia. I figured it was a combination of accumulated stresses and the now sub-optimal environment. Of course, as I started to think about, many more parameters of the plant's environment changed than stayed the same: mean temperature, mean temperature variability, tap water composition, yadda.

I'm going to try flushing it with plain tap water, and moving it to the brightest spot I can manage. Maybe that will be enough to stave off death.
posted by janell at 1:50 PM on February 24, 2007

My mom gets good results keeping her orchid in the bathroom. Her BR has a lot of windows but she thinks it's the fact that there's regularly a bunch of warm water vapor.
posted by salvia at 1:12 PM on February 25, 2007

(from showers steaming up the room)
posted by salvia at 1:13 PM on February 25, 2007

« Older Importing airsoft guns   |   How does a busy student turn more coin? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.