Orchids are very difficult to grow and if you have attempted it, the chances are you’ve killed one or two due to the steep learning curve. They can be tricky plants as they have a dormancy phase in which they look dead. Don’t just toss the plant out – it might still be perfectly healthy!
That’s why we’re going to look at five different signs that show your orchid is dead, so you know whether to give up or keep hoping.
There are a number of things that will tell you if your orchid has died, including inspecting the roots and the crown, thinking about what cycle your plant is entering, and examining the environment the plant is being kept in. Look for factors that would mean your plant has suffered damage, such as extreme cold or insect infestations, before assuming your plant is dead.
Let’s explore the potential signs you should check for when you’re trying to work out whether your orchid is dead or dormant.
Why Might My Orchid Look Dead If It Isn’t?
First, let’s establish why it is worth questioning whether your orchid is dead or not. With many plants, if they have lost all their leaves and apparently stopped growing, they are dead, and this is a simple (although upsetting) fact. You can’t do anything much to change it.
With orchids, however, it isn’t that straightforward. Orchids have a period of dormancy each year, and an orchid may look dead when it is actually just resting.
The orchid needs to enter this dormancy period after it has finished flowering, and most orchids will do so every cycle. They will drop their buds and stop growing, and you may also notice that the leaves shrivel, turn flat, or droop. They may lose their vivid color and grow dull.
This looks a lot like death in most plants, but for some species, it’s just a natural part of their yearly cycle. This is the case for orchids. They simply need a rest before they try and flower again the following year.
It’s important to be able to distinguish between dormancy and death, otherwise, you might end up throwing away your orchid when it’s absolutely fine, and just taking a breather! If your orchid is looking sickly, take some time to assess the situation before making a decision.
So, let’s look at how you can tell the difference between a dormant orchid and a dead orchid.
Sign One: No Roots
If you grow your orchid in a clear pot, like these ones on Amazon, this should be reasonably easy to check, but even if you grow your orchid in an opaque pot, you can take a look. Gently scrape back the orchid bark and soil with your fingers until you can see the orchid’s roots.
Give the roots a poke. If there are no or few roots, your orchid has died – plants need roots to survive, and without them, it’s a certainty that the orchid has not survived. If your plant has very few roots, or the roots are black, mushy, squishy, etc., it is also very likely dead.
However, if you find a healthy, strong root ball, the plant is probably fine. Of course, it may be that it has just died and the roots haven’t yet had time to shrivel away, but this is unlikely. Check on the roots again in a few weeks to see how they are looking.
Healthy roots are a sure sign your plant is alive and well, even if it doesn’t seem to be doing anything just now! Keep watering it occasionally and wait for it to emerge from its dormancy period.
If you’re also worried about potential root rot, we’ve got an article that will help you how to fix orchid root rot.
Sign Two: The Crown Has Rotted
The next place to check is your orchid’s crown, the center of the plant among the leaves. If this feels black or squashy or it smells bad, it has unfortunately rotted. This is a sure sign that your orchid is dead.
The crown is like the heart of your plant, and in nature, it is exposed to an excellent flow of air in the canopy of rainforests. In your home, however, with less wind, it is unfortunately susceptible to rotting. If it has rotted, your plant is dead or dying.
If you find that the crown is firm and looks healthy, that’s great news – your plant is probably fine! Try gently poking it with your finger to see how it feels. New growth stemming from the crown is an excellent sign that your plant is still alive.
You may find that it’s easier to check the plant’s crown than it is to check the roots, so bear this in mind when assessing your orchid.
Sign Three: The Leaves Are Falling Off
To be clear, this is not a sure sign that your orchid is dead; your orchid can lose some of its leaves during the dormancy period, and you shouldn’t worry if you notice one or two leaves dropping, while others seem to be losing their color and firmness.
However, if your orchid is losing a lot of its leaves very suddenly, you need to investigate. The plant should not drop all of its leaves during the dormancy period, so this could be a good indication that something is wrong.
Yellow leaves and leaves that are falling off should encourage you to pay attention to your orchid. Does it need something? Have you over-watered it? Is it getting too much (or too little) sunlight? Is it too hot or too cold?
Leaves can drop for a myriad of reasons, but it’s important to try and find out what is causing them to fall, or you run the risk of losing your orchid.
If your orchid is simply turning dormant for the year, it shouldn’t lose many of its leaves. They may shrivel, yellow, and dull, but few or none should actually come off the plant. If your orchid has dropped all of its leaves, it is probably dead.
You can confirm this by checking its crown and its roots (leaf loss is often due to root rot) but it may be too late to save the plant by this stage. You can still try correcting whatever factors are causing stress but prepare yourself for the fact that the plant might be dead.
If you’re worried about your orchid having yellow leaves, we have an article that will potentially help you fix the problem.
Sign Four: Its Environment
Another way to determine whether your orchid is dead or not involves carefully checking its environment. If all of its needs are met, it is more likely to be dormant than dead. Equally, if some need is not being met, the plant has probably died or is dying.
You should look out for all the common things that may have killed your orchid. If none are present, it is probably not dead (although there is no guarantee, as orchids can be fussy and easy to kill).
So, what should you look at?
Firstly, check whether you have over-watered your orchid. If you have, you will be able to tell by handling the crown, the roots, and the growing medium. If any feel wet or mushy, you have over-watered your orchid and it is probably dead.
Unfortunately, it is very easy to do this. Orchids like having plenty to drink, but they don’t like to sit in water, and this can be a difficult balance to establish. If your orchid has been over-watered, its roots will rot and it will quickly die.
Of course, you can also kill an orchid by under-watering it, although this is rarer. If you find that the pot is totally dry and the roots have become cracked and brittle, the plant is likely dead.
The condition of the pot and the plant’s roots will give you a good indicator of whether it is likely to be dead or dormant, so check these out carefully.
Does your orchid have enough light? Orchids like bright but indirect light, and anything else is likely to kill them. Remember, most orchids grow in the canopy of rainforests. They get bright sun, but it is all filtered through a layer of green leaves, which prevents the orchids from getting the full blast.
If you have put your orchid on a sunny windowsill and it is getting hit by the rays of light every day, it probably isn’t very happy – and this may kill it. Equally, if your orchid is languishing in a dark corner, it will die, as they don’t tolerate shade well.
Check the light levels your plant is being subjected to; these may tell you if it is dead or dormant.
Lack of food is unlikely to kill your orchid, but it is still worth considering when you last fertilized it. If you haven’t done so, the orchid may have run out of nutrients. Usually, this will just result in slow growth, but in extreme cases, it could cause death.
It is more likely, however, that over-fertilizing has contributed. If you have fed your orchid too much, you may have burned its roots, and this can leave the plant struggling to grow, or not growing because the damage is too extensive.
It is important to be careful when fertilizing your orchid because too much or too little could be detrimental to a plant’s health. It is unlikely to kill the plant, but if you know you have fertilized badly in recent months, consider this a potential factor in your orchid’s death.
If your orchid is covered in pests and you have only just noticed, this could be a major contributing factor to death, and it certainly won’t lead to dormancy. You should try to check your orchid for common pests regularly, but if you haven’t done this lately and the orchid is infested, it is probably at risk of dying.
Orchids are popular with many kinds of pests, and if you find its sick leaves covered in aphids, mealybugs, scale insects, etc., it is probably dying. You may still have time to save it, but it’s certainly not going dormant. I’ve written an article on what type of bugs orchids attract, and also shared a few tips on how to keep some of those demolishing bugs away.
If you find your orchid looking dead and there is evidence of pest attacks (e.g. honeydew, chewed leaves), it’s a safe bet that the insects have killed the plant. It is not dormant; it has died or is dying.
Orchids like to be kept in a humid environment. If your orchid is too dry, you may find that its leaves start to turn yellow and drop off. This could look like dormancy, but it is actually an indication that your plant is getting sick.
Sign Five: It’s The Wrong Time Of Year For Dormancy
One more way of checking if your orchid is dead is to work out what stage of its cycle it is at. If it’s due to go into the dormancy period, that helps you determine whether that’s what it is doing.
If it has only just come out of the dormancy period and it’s looking sick, there’s probably something wrong, rather than a second dormancy coming on.
Dormancy periods aren’t always totally predictable, especially as being grown inside a home can mess up an orchid’s natural cycles and confuse it. However, your plant should not wake up and then immediately try to turn dormant again; it should try to flower once it has woken up properly.
If you are sure your orchid should not be going dormant, try checking whether all of its needs are being met.
The best way to check if your orchid is dead is to see whether its normal needs are being met, or whether something is attacking it. If the needs are all met and the orchid is pest-free, it is probably not dead or dying. Instead, it is resting and preparing itself to flower again.
However, if you find rotten roots, problems with over-watering, or too much humidity, your plant may have died because of improper growing conditions. While dormancy and death can look similar, they are caused by very different things, so make sure you are aware of this when assessing your plant.