Orchids are unfortunately susceptible to root rot, and this is a disease that will kill a plant very quickly if you don’t deal with it as soon as you can. It’s easy to end up with this problem, so we’re going to look at how to fix orchid root rot (prevention, symptoms, fixes).
An orchid with root rot will start to droop and its flowers will drop off. You may also see yellowing leaves as the plant struggles to take in nutrients and water properly. Root rot can be fixed if you notice it in time and remove your plant from the wet environment, cutting away the damaged roots and replanting it in a fresh growing medium.
What Causes Root Rot?
Root rot is an unpleasant disease that is caused by over-watering. Orchids are not resilient when it comes to sitting in water for extended periods of time, and if your orchid has been over-watered, it is vulnerable to rotting roots.
Orchid roots have evolved to suit their specific environment and the usual water conditions that they experience. On the trees where many orchids grow, water does not stay around the roots for more than a few minutes.
The roots, therefore, suck up a large amount of water all at once, and this means that the plants have plenty to drink even when conditions turn dry.
To allow them to do this, orchids have particularly fat, spongy roots that hold onto water well. The root tissue is called velamen, and it is perfect for this. The orchid will then have plenty to drink until the next rainfall.
However, the roots themselves don’t sit in water for extended periods; they trap the water inside them. This means that they aren’t designed to cope well with water that stays on their surface, and they will quickly begin to rot if the water doesn’t drain away, as it does in their natural environment.
For this reason, it’s very important to control how much water you give orchids and to make sure that they are planted in well-draining material. Orchid bark and perlite provide a good mix that will help the water to drain away freely.
It’s also crucial to pay attention to whether your plant actually needs water before you add water to its pot. Any time you are thinking about giving your plant a drink, gently push your finger into the top inch of the growing medium. If the growing medium feels damp still, the orchid doesn’t need more water yet.
Even if it is starting to feel dry, don’t rush to give it a drink. It may not need one just yet. Over-watering is worse for your plant than under-watering it, so be stringent in how much water you offer.
What Does Root Rot Look Like?
So, what are the symptoms of root rot? Unfortunately, it is not immediately visible, because it’s in the roots and not where you can see it. However, there are some clear signs, and a combination of these is a good indication that your plant may be suffering from root rot.
One of the clearest indicators that your plant’s roots are rotting is that the plant will start to wilt and turn yellow.
Orchids can’t take up water or nutrients when their roots start rotting, so they will show signs of nutrient deficiency and dehydration. You will need to act quickly to save them because root rot will kill the plant very fast if you aren’t careful.
If the new leaves on your plant seem weak and flimsy, it’s another sign that the plant is suffering in some way. Orchid leaves are usually very tough and while new growth takes a bit of time to become firm, it should soon do so. Check the young leaves of a plant and see if they appear strong.
Another indicator lies in flower buds that fall readily. Orchids that are suffering from some form of sickness will drop flower buds that have recently formed because they can no longer sustain them. If this is happening to your orchid and it seems to be shedding buds as fast as it grows them, check its roots.
Drooping leaves are also a sign of a root problem, because they indicate the plant isn’t getting enough moisture. If you have recently watered your orchid but it is acting as though it hasn’t had a drink for months, don’t just give it more water. You need to investigate.
If you suspect root rot, the first thing you need to do is take your orchid out of its pot. Handle it gently as the roots are likely to be delicate.
If the roots are black, brown, or mushy, the plant has root rot. You can try gently poking them to see if they feel wrong. If they are soft or break away under your hand, they are rotting.
Assess how bad the damage is; this will help you establish how likely you are to be able to save the plant. If the roots are only just going mushy at the ends, your plant can probably be rescued. If most of the roots have gone mushy, your plant is probably not going to live. However, you can still try!
How Do I Fix Root Rot?
So, what can you do once you have established that your plant has root rot? The key lies in quick action, because the worse the root rot gets, the more likely the plant is to die. It will get sicker every day that it is rotting.
Let’s look at how to save a plant that is suffering from root rot.
Step One: Take The Plant Out
You need to remove your plant from the pot, and this should be done with maximum care to prevent further damage to the roots, which will be very fragile.
If your plant is in a plastic pot, start by gently flexing the edges of the pot to loosen the potting mix away from it and break up any compaction. You can also use a blunt knife, a knitting needle, or a lolly stick to disturb the potting mix.
Once you have loosened things up, get some newspaper and then put one of your hands at the orchid’s base, supporting its stem between your fingers. With the other hand, upend the pot and very carefully tip the orchid out. Make sure you are supporting its stem so this doesn’t hit something and snap.
If the orchid sticks, spend a bit more time loosening the growing medium and shaking it around so that the orchid comes free easily. This will minimize damage to the roots. Once you have got the orchid free, rest it on the newspaper.
Next, you need to remove as much of the growing medium as possible without doing further damage to the plant. Gently dust and knock the soil and potting medium off its roots, using a paintbrush or another soft tool to get the difficult soil-free, until the roots are as clear as you can get them.
Discard the soil into the compost bucket and then put the orchid on a sheet of clean newspaper so that you are working in a more sterile environment.
Step Two: Cut Away The Roots
Next, you need to remove the damaged and infected roots. This is a tricky operation and must be done with great care because the orchid needs to retain as much root as possible while ensuring you have removed the problem.
If you leave rotting roots, they could spread the disease into the healthy ones when you re-pot the plant, so this is important to handle with care.
You should find a pair of sharp scissors or pruning shears to ensure you are able to make clean cuts, rather than ragged ones.
Sterilize the scissors in some boiling water, or wipe them down with rubbing alcohol, bleach, or a household disinfectant such as dish soap. You may want to keep a bowl nearby so you can keep sterilizing the tool as you work (refresh the boiling water regularly if that’s what you are using).
Get comfortable so that you can take your time, and then examine your orchid’s roots again. You need to carefully remove any that have become mushy, black, or dark brown. Work slowly, handling the roots with care so that you don’t do further damage to healthy roots.
Cut away everything that looks like it has been damaged, and discard this material. Free up any remaining clumps of soil from the plant; you don’t want any growing medium to remain, as this could also be contaminated.
You do want to leave as many healthy roots as you can, so try to strike a balance between removing the infection and leaving your plant with enough roots to recover. This is not easy and every case is different, so you will have to just use your best judgment in order to deal with it.
Step Three: Treat The Remaining Roots
It’s likely that even the healthy roots have been contaminated by the fungus that is attacking the mushy ones, and you don’t want to remove all the roots, or the plant will certainly die.
The best way to solve this dilemma is to treat the remaining roots with a fungicide that will kill off any spores and give the roots some protection from fungal attacks.
Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to avoid harming your plant further or burning its delicate roots. You are going to need to be very gentle with your orchid for a while if it is to recover, so don’t just douse the roots in fungicide, but adhere to the given directions. Your orchid will be much happier.
Step Four: Let The Plant Dry
You might be very keen to now get your orchid back into a pot with some nice fresh growing medium and let it start recovering, and that’s very understandable, but unfortunately, there are a few steps left first.
First, get some clean kitchen towel and gently dab wads of it against your orchid’s roots to soak the excess moisture away from them. This should again reduce the chances of the fungus encroaching on the remaining roots, because it needs damp conditions to thrive in.
Keep blotting and soaking up moisture until you feel you’ve got the roots as dry as you can; this gives your plant the best chance of success in getting over the root rot. Now, you need to let the air do the rest for a while.
Take a sheet of clean newspaper and spread it out, and then transfer the orchid to this. Leave it for the next twelve hours or so, up to a day. It needs to be out of any direct sunlight, preferably somewhere cool and shady, but not damp.
Do not put your orchid in the sun to dry its roots. They will be very vulnerable and will burn fast. Direct sun exposure at this point is almost certain to kill the plant, so be careful.
Once it is in a shady spot, you can leave it and move on to the next step.
Step Five: Source A Pot
Assess your orchid’s previous container. Does it have good enough drainage holes? If the orchid’s root rot was caused by you accidentally over-watering it, it’s possible that the holes are sufficient, but you should make sure before you choose the same container again.
You can make more holes by drilling carefully through the pot (if it is plastic) or just choose another container.
You should also check that the pot is about the right size. Orchids do not like having a lot of space around their roots, and this also makes it harder to get watering right, so if the pot was too large or too small, choose a different one.
In general, orchids prefer to have pots that are between four and six inches, unless they are very large or very small plants. Don’t use a pot that is very deep, as these plants usually have shallow roots and they won’t stretch down for water. Deep pots also make it easier to over-water.
Whether you are changing the container or not, it is a good idea to disinfect the pot you plan to use to remove anything that might attack your vulnerable plant. This is particularly key if you are re-using the same container, as fungal spores could be clinging to it.
Wash the pot in hot, soapy water, and rinse it with bleach. This should kill anything that is lingering in the soil remnants or on the surface of the container.
Step Six: Prepare The Pot
Next, you should add the growing medium to the pot. It is a good idea to put lots of drainage material in the container, particularly near the bottom, as this will encourage the water to drain away from the roots and reduce the chances of root rot reoccurring. Some people line the entire bottom with gravel or perlite.
You can make your own orchid mixture, or you can buy it ready made from many garden centers and nurseries.
Your orchid does like to have a firm base to stand in, so don’t fill the pot with sand. Instead, opt for a mixture of orchid bark, perlite, small gravel, and compost. This will give your plant plenty of nutrients, but will also provide the drainage and solidity that it requires.
Some people also mix charcoal into their orchid mix, and many forgo the compost entirely, as the plant will take up nutrients from liquid fertilizer just as well. However, if you wish to include compost, you can do so in small quantities.
Prepare enough of this mixture to fill the pot, leaving a small amount of space for the orchid’s roots, and then wait for the orchid to finish its drying so that you can replant it. Don’t do so straight away as the orchid’s roots need time to dry thoroughly.
Step Seven: Plant Your Orchid Again
Once the twelve hours (or more) are up, you can replant your orchid. First, tip a bit of your potting mixture into the pot, until it is about a third to halfway full. Add some to the edges of the pot, and then gently transfer your orchid into the resulting hollow.
Slowly add more potting mixture around the edges of the plant, being careful not to do further damage to its roots as you work. It is a good idea to pack the mix in fairly tightly so that the orchid is well supported, but don’t press so hard that you snap any of its remaining roots.
When you have filled the pot to the top, press down on the surface gently to compact the potting mix and give the orchid a snug and supportive environment.
Next, you need to put your orchid somewhere that it will thrive. It takes a lot of energy for plants to regrow damaged roots and they are often shocked by the experience, so you will have to treat your plant very gently.
Don’t fertilize it straight away; there should be plenty to eat in the new potting mix, and it will likely use stores of food that it already has before taking up more nutrients.
Instead, find it a well-lit spot with no direct sunlight, and place it there. Direct sun will burn the leaves and stress the plant, but if you don’t have an alternative, just place a shade between your plant and the sun to protect it. A thin curtain or even a paper shade should do the trick, protecting it from the heat of the sun’s rays.
Step Eight: Water With Care
You probably don’t want to water your plant again for some time as it will still have water in its roots, but of course, you will have to resume watering within a few days, perhaps a week, of replanting it.
Pay more attention to your watering routine this time, as a second bout of root rot is likely to kill the plant, especially while it is still vulnerable. Don’t water according to a schedule, but instead check that the plant’s growing medium has dried out before you give it another drink.
When you water your orchid, you should fully saturate its soil, not just give it a light drink now and again. These plants are used to truly drenching showers, followed by dry periods, so you want to mimic these conditions as closely as possible.
Water the orchid until you see the water run out of its pot, and then empty the saucer beneath it and leave it for the next few days. If the saucer remains wet, empty it again so that the water can keep draining out away from the orchid’s roots.
You should also aim to use rainwater or softened water, as orchids dislike the lime in tap water. When the roots have been damaged and the plant is vulnerable, this is particularly important.
How often you need to water your orchid will heavily depend on where you are, the conditions in your home, the season, the growing mixture you have used, and possibly other conditions too, so it’s important to actually check whether the plant requires water or not before giving it any. This is the best way to avoid root rot in the future.
Hopefully, your plant will soon recover. Unfortunately, root rot has often gone too far before it is detected, and some plants cannot be saved no matter how hard you try. However, with any luck, your orchid will soon be thriving again.
Ensure that it has plenty of sunlight, nutrients, and a good misting from time to time to keep it happy and healthy, and don’t water it too often in the future.
Root rot can kill an orchid quickly, but if you look out for the warning signs and take prompt action, you may be able to save the plant. You can reduce the chances of root rot by using a good growing medium, making sure the container has drainage holes, and only watering when the plant is dry.