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Limp Leaves: Signal a Watering Problem

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limp leaves - watering orchids

Orchid leaves should be upright, stiff and bright green.  If your orchid’s leaves are leathery and limp there is a watering problem.  

Over watered orchids are the most common killer of orchids. Fortunately, it is a fate that can easily be avoided. Because limp, leathery leaves indicate that the orchid is not getting enough water, our first instinct is to water.  Then, when the orchid’s leaves are still limp, we water again, and again. This effectively kills the orchid’s root system. If the leaves are limp and leathery, make sure that the problem really is neglect. If you’ve been watering, and watering, trying to water some life back into your orchid, hold off on the water.

Guess why I know so much about this cycle? That’s right. Guilty as charged. By sad experience, I’ve learned how to ascertain if limp leaves indicate that I’ve over watered or under watered my orchid.  I made that mistake simply because I lacked the knowledge. The orchid’s instruction tag said nothing about watering problems, or about how to solve them. I had to figure it out on my own.  After learning out how to spot watering problems, and how to prevent them, my orchids began to flourish. Now my orchids’ leaves are bright and stiff, happy and thriving.

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Under Watered, or Over Watered?

The first step is to determine if the orchid is in a drought or flood situation. When possible, the best course of action is to lift the plant out of the secondary pot and look through the clear plastic primary pot to inspect the roots. If the orchid is not growing in a clear plastic pot, peek through a drainage hole. Often roots will make their way out of the drainage holes in the pot. If you still can’t see anything, poke your finger into the hole and feel for dampness. If the potting media is damp, wait to water until it has dried out. 

Under Watered

Healthy roots are plump and silvery green. The roots may even be white, but they should not be shriveled or brittle. Be sure to inspect the roots that are down in the potting medium, not the ones climbing out of the pot.  It is okay if these roots are dry.  If the deeper roots are dried out, your orchid is thirsty.  Give your orchid a good soaking.  

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Under watered roots

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Over Watered

If roots are over watered they will look like mush, and have very little substance.  Orchid roots are generally only bright green right after they have been watered and will turn the silvery green after a few days.  If they are still bright green and you haven’t watered recently, they may be getting too much water.

Most orchid roots cannot abide wet feet. If they are left in standing water the roots will rot and will no longer be able to deliver water to the rest of the plant. Continuing to water will exacerbate the problem.  In this situation snip the rotted roots with a pair of scissors that have been sanitized with rubbing alcohol, and re-pot the plant.  If there are very few roots left, raise the humidity level for the plant and wait for the plant to grow more roots.  Again, my watering post gives tips on recognizing when to water, and when not to.

Over watered roots

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Avoiding Future Problems

If your plants are under watered, simply soak your orchid more frequently.  Check once a week to determine if the potting medium had dried out. If over watering is the problem, add a few days between watering.  Be sure to check the potting medium before watering.  If it is still wet, wait to water. Check again in a few days.  

Pictured below are the healthy roots of a cattleya orchid. If your orchid is not a cattleya they will not look exactly like the roots pictured below, but like the roots pictured below, they will be firm, not mushy or dried out. 

Healthy roots

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Successfully watering orchids is the most important factor in growing healthy orchids. Now that you know what unhealthy and healthy roots look like, you will be able to identify potential problems before they get out of hand. Let the dampness, or dryness, of the plant’s soil be your guide.

One last tip: Don’t let dried out looking aerial roots trick you into thinking you need to water if the potting medium is still wet. 

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41 Comments
  1. Bess Falls says:

    I have shriveled aerial roots. The potting medium was dry when I stuck my finger down about 2″ so I watered. Should I cut off the shriveled aerial roots?

    1. Anna says:

      Generally I recommend leaving aerial roots alone, but if you’re sure their dead, go ahead and snip them off. Good Luck!

  2. Hector Noronha says:

    Quite impressed with all the information. i would like to know how to deal with a lot of long areal roots hanging. Please advise.

    Thank you.

    Hector

    1. Anna says:

      Great question Hector. The simple truth is that the best way to deal with aerial roots is to do nothing at all. Just let them grow and do its thing. These roots may not be pretty, but it’s what orchids do. Aerial roots are important to the orchids as they aid in photosynthesis. Thanks for asking Hector. Please let me know if you have any other questions. Anna

  3. Dear Anna, thank you for all the great tips.

    1. Anna says:

      Dear Morag,
      You’re welcome! Let me know if there is any specific information you need that you can’t find on my site. I’m happy to help!
      Anna

  4. Amanda Shaw says:

    Once the leaves are limp and wrinkled can this be reversed for those leaves.
    I under watered my plant, am back on a track with watering…newer leaves are good but older leaves still limp and wrinkled.

    1. Anna says:

      Amanda,
      While the wrinkled leaves will improve, they may never fully recover. I wish I had better news, but the important thing is that you, and your orchid, are back on track.
      Best!
      Anna

  5. Judy jones says:

    Thanks for the information about how to keep orchids. I badly needed it. I was wondering if you could email me if you have time t tell me how to find my boards that I have saved. I can’t for the life of me find my boards that I have saved stuff to. If you don’t know or don’t want to answer, I’m fine with that lol. I can’t for the life of me find my boards that I have saved stuff to. Either way, thank you so much.

    1. Anna says:

      Judy,
      It was great to hear from you! And, I’m glad I could help!
      Anna

      1. Anna says:

        Judy,
        I’m glad I could help you with your orchids. Here is how to find your Pinterest boards. Believe me, I know how annoying it can be when you can’t find what you’re looking for 🙂
        Once you are logged into your Pinterest account, click on your profile picture, and then click . After that you will see three buttons , and . Click on and there’s your boards!
        Good luck with Pinterest!
        Anna

  6. Tracy says:

    I have my orchids in a South facing sunroom. They do great in the winter, but in the summer the leaves get very limp looking in spite of a regular watering schedule. I live in the south and it gets very hot and very humid. Do you think the humidity is doing this? My barometer registers the humidity at about 75% in there in the summer. Also they look good, but are not blooming. They get regular feedings with orchid specific fertilizer. Been growing for about 15 years under lights with great results, but since i moved them to the sunroom 3 yr ago they just are not performing. Got any suggestions?

    1. Anna says:

      Tracy,
      Your orchids seem to have excellent care. Still since they aren’t blooming, here’s some tips on overcoming bloom failure. It may be that it is too hot for your orchids.

      Anna

  7. Renda Bullock says:

    Hello, Anna!
    I’m enjoying your site! I have several orchids and most do well, but some need help.
    I was trying to view your post on cutting the stem for more blooms and this “thing” keeps popping up wanting me to sign up for something. It’s too big to see where to opt out, and you can’t access any more of the info on the stem-trimming page!
    I’m on a mobile device….Please check it out as I wish to see what that page says!
    Thank You!

    1. Anna says:

      Renda,
      Thank you for bringing the annoying popup to my attention. I have removed it.
      I appreciate your input. Here is the link to cutting the orchid spike.
      Let me know if there is anything else I can help you out with.
      Anna

  8. Linda VanderStelt says:

    My orchid has two babies. The mother plants leaves are now kind of limp but not really wilted. It also hasn’t bloomed in about 2 years. Do you have any suggestions on what I should do? Thank you.
    ..

    1. Anna says:

      Linda,
      Once the keikis (babies) have roots that are about 3 inches long carefully remove them with a sharp sterile knife or razor blade. Next, pot the keikis in a orchid mix formulated especially for young orchids. I recommend my affiliate: Bonsai Jack Miniature and Seedling Orchid Mix. It really is the best orchid mix. Then I would repot the mother orchid. Many times growing a keiki is a signal that an orchid is in distress. When you repot you will see what shape the roots and the potting medium are in. Over watering and soil break down are two common scenarios that can kill an orchid. After this process, you’ll be a much wiser orchid care-giver. And hopefully, you will end up with more orchids than you started with!
      Anna

  9. Ben says:

    After reading your article I went down to the shed where I have 3 orchids in a propagator. 2 of them from a friend who is leaving to go to New Zealand, 1 is mine. My orchid has a leaf that is yellowing where it connects to the mother plant and when I picked it up it fell off, mean anything to you?

    My friend’s pot is full of seedling Phalaenopsis. The small leaves which look like they’re emerging from brown leaf buds. Any suggestions on how to care for that one?
    All orchids are Phalaenopsis by the way,
    Thanks
    Ben.

    1. Anna says:

      Ben,

      It sound like you had a keiki, a baby orchid, that yellowed at the base and fell off. Sometimes a keiki will die if it does not receive enough humidity. Try misting the keiki with a spray bottle or placing the plant near a humidifier.

      How fun to have inherited your friend’s seedlings! To care for them, keep humidity levels above 50%. Watch for disease, like spotting on the leaves or fungus. Increasing air circulation will help prevent disease. When watering, use a weak solution of fertilizer.
      I wish you the best in caring for your orchid babies!
      Anna

  10. Barbara says:

    Hi Anna, I have just bought 2 Phal orchids and they don’t seem to have been potted with sphagnum moss, instead they’ve used bark. Ive been having problems keeping them watered adequately. Leaves are leathery and limp – at first I think I was under watering, now I think I may be over watering to compensate. Today I’ll pull the plant and have a look at the roots and compare to your pictures to find out. I’ve bought some sphagnum moss and will replace the bark with moss to return the potting medium to what I’m used to, so I hope that will also help to solve the problem. What I didn’t mention is that I usually pick up the pot to see how light it is, that is how I tell whether to water or not – I’ve had great success using this method. I am not able to do this with these two Phals because I potted them in a gorgeous blue and white Chinese porcelain bowl so I am unable to tell how dry they are based on weight of pot. I feel like I’m watering “blind.” While I love the look of the potted orchid watering is a challenge in this medium. As you suggest, I’ll have to pull the plants and check the roots. Thank you very much for your photos and guidance regarding watering, your info is invaluable.

    1. Anna says:

      Barbara,
      Let me know how your potting goes. I agree that you should stay with the moss if that is what you’ve been successful with. Could you place your orchids in clear liner pots and then place the liner pot inside the Chinese porcelain bowls?
      Keep in touch,
      Anna

  11. Aida F. says:

    Good morning Anna,

    I just found your site on Pinterest and was hoping you could help me. I purchased a mini “Just Add Ice” Orchid and was gifted a large purple Phalaenopsis Orchid that had split leaves on Valentine’s Day from my hubby, both with some blooms and some buds. So far because of this unpredictable Winter weather and being that my apartment’s heat is never consistently running, it’s been cold in my apartment so they both suffered bud blast and flower drop?.

    I cut the stems back on the larger orchid and repotted it and the mini in fresh bark. The mini orchid still has a bloom on it and now it’s growing new buds. I’ve been watering both with lukewarm tap water and growing both under my Aerogarden lights.

    My larger orchid has one limp wrinkled leaf and what looks like beige scrape marks under the leaves.

    I checked the bark and it was dry on top. And I had to cut some of the roots off because of root rot… please if you can give me any advice I would greatly appreciate it and I’m sorry for the long message but I really want to save her, thank you in advance and have a blessed say.?

    1. Anna says:

      Dear Aida,
      I’m so sorry to hear your orchids suffered bud blast! That’s always so disappointing! I’m glad that the mini is recuperating and growing new buds. How much does the temperature in your apartment fluctuate? Is it is one of lower or upper leaves on on the larger orchid that is wrinkled? It is normal for lower leaves to eventually wrinkle, turn yellow and die. But, if it is one of the upper, newer leaves that is wrinkling, there is a watering problem.
      Could you send me a picture of the scrape marks on the orchid leaves? Email me at anna@orchidbliss.com.
      Bark is a good potting media for orchids, just remember that it will dry out a lot faster than sphagnum moss. Also, be sure that your orchids have excellent drainage. Are your plants potted in clear, plastic liner pots? Those help a lot in determining if the orchid needs more water.
      I hope this helps! I look forward to the picture of the orchid leaves.
      Anna

  12. Suvarna says:

    Dear Anna…could you please tell me the reason the leaves on my Vanda orchid have become leathery and are splitting at the tips and shaft…?

    1. Anna says:

      Suvarna,
      Thanks for reaching out. I personally do not grow Vanda orchids as my climate won’t support them, not enough humidity or light. Having said that, leathery leaves indicate a problem with watering. It is recommended that Vandas are watered daily. If the orchid needs a watering boost, you can set the roots in a bucket of water for about 30 minutes.
      I hope this helps!
      Anna

  13. Carmen says:

    Hi there, I’ve repotted my orchids about a month ago. Their potting medium from when purchased was mostly moss and rotten. I noticed they had some very dark roots, and some were really rotten. I cut those off with sterilised scissors and carefully washed off the rotted moss. I left the firm dark roots though. There were very few green roots but some new roots were starting. I potted them only in bark chips in clear pots. Now the past 2 weeks the leaves are all sagging. They are not shriveled, just sagging. They each have 2 new leaves. The other one that was really struggling before has literally only 3 roots left. I thought I did everything right and they’d be doing much better. But the leaves are really sagging. I’m soaking the pot in water for 15 min once a week. It’s been quite dry and hot here so I’ve started soaking them twice a week. Before I soak them, I check the medium and the bark is always very dry. They are still not very well anchored in their new pots and tend to lean to one side. I keep trying to keep them upright with sticks but I don’t like pestering them too much. The healthiest out of the 3 plants I only cut stem down to where it dried out… The others I cut stems down right back. I saw the start of a new flower stem just before I repotted. But now it looks like a baby keike growing. Are my orchids dying? I’ve really been spending so much time researching and watched so many repotting videos, I thought by completing illuminating moss and only using specific orchid bark would be good for them. Now I’m worried I’ve caused them more stress. Please help. Thank you so much!

    1. Anna says:

      Carmen,
      I am so glad you reached out to me! Bark is a great potting medium because it allows for plenty of air circulation, which the orchid roots need. But, as you’ve noticed, orchids potted in bark do have high water requirements, especially when they have been recently potted. My recommendation to to water the orchids frequently. Because you potted them in clear pots you can see if the wood has dried out. As time goes on, you will not need to water as frequently. Keep an eye on the wood chips and water as necessary.
      Keep in touch and good luck!
      Anna

  14. Bonnie says:

    Hello, I have 4 Phals that have wrinkled leaves. Have tried watering them to no avail. I received them last Nov. as gifts, so I hate to lose them plus they all were in full bloom. When I pulled the plants they had very little to no roots. What roots were left were brown and dried out so I clipped them off. So how do I get new roots to start growing and not lose those plants? We have a humidifier on our furnace plus plants sit on pebbles on a tray. Thank you for those pics and your advice.
    Bonnie

    1. Anna says:

      Bonnie,
      If your roots were brown and dried instead of soft and mushy, it sounds like you were under watering rather than over watering. When growing Phals, keep the potting medium barely moist–never let them sit in water. Phals don’t have any water storage, so barely moist potting medium is important. To try to save the orchids, place a clear plastic bag over the top to create a high-humidity greenhouse-like environment. It can take several months to grow new roots, so don’t give up!
      Best of luck to you!
      Anna

  15. Maite says:

    Hello Anna, your info is very useful! I have a small phal potted in a kokedama medium; lately i found three of its leaves are yellowing. I’ve got two other phals which are doing ok, and I usually water once every two weeks by immersing thm in water (it’s autumn over here so I’m cautious with trying not to overwater). Do you know what the problem could be? As it is in a kokedama I can’t see the roots, but it’s got me quite worried! If absolutely necessary I’m willing to break apart the kokedama and repot (even though I love the look of it!)

    Thanks in advance!

    Maite

    1. Anna says:

      Maite,
      Thanks for reaching out! It sounds like overall your orchids are doing well. But, yes, yellowing leaves are worrisome. Check out this post: What to do about yellowing leaves. This post will give you some clues about yellowing leaves. If none of my tips are seem to fit what’s wrong with your orchid, you could definitely check out the roots, as that seems to be the difference between that orchid and the others.
      Keep me updated,
      Anna

  16. Hang Kesinger says:

    Hi Anna, how do you feel about water culture? I have one phal that is recovering and doing well with new root growth in full water culture but I have anither phal that i started on water culture. Its roots were rotted to begin with being packed in moss so i cut those off and put it in water. The blooms haven’t dropped but they wilted and so have the leaves. They’re beginning to perk back up but I’m wondering if I should repot it back into bark, also my husband placed it in a window under an AC vent so I’m wondering if it had gotten too cold there so I moved it. Also back to the first phal I mentioned, it hasn’t spiked in almost a year. Is that normal? It’s been having great root growth so I know a lot of energy is going into that but when should I expect a new spike?

    1. Anna says:

      Hang,
      I haven’t tried water culture, but I do have several readers who have. Some have been very successful. If your orchid hasn’t bloomed in over a year, it may need more light. Check out these tips for blooming your orchid:
      Just For You: Tips to ReBloom Orchids
      The Top Tools I Use to Bloom My Orchids
      It may be that your orchid simply needs more light. At any rate, check out my tips and see if any of them fit the needs of your orchid.
      Wishing you the best!
      Anna

  17. Annika says:

    Dear Anna,

    After your excellent explanation I have examined my orchid. The most of the roots above are completely dried out and brittle (there are two heavy ones) but underneath seems to be suffering from over watering and appear like the picture somewhat mushy. Based on the above description it seems like the plant has been over watered. Is it possible to come back from that or do I need to chalk this up as a life lesson?

    1. Anna says:

      Annika,
      It’s always worth trying to save your orchid. Pot it in clear pot so you can see when your to water. Use a bark-based potting mix that will drain quickly, yet still retain some water. Using this method you will be able to see when to water and you’ll be less likely to overwater. Check out this post on how to repot for step-by-step instructions: HOW TO REPOT AN ORCHID
      Orchids are resilient! But, if your orchid doesn’t recover you will have learned that much more by repotting.
      I’m hopeful for your orchid and wish you the best!
      Anna

  18. Rita says:

    I have limp, leathery, wrinkled leaves on my orchid. I left my orchids and other flowers in the care of a friend last year and my other flowers died of not enough water. This one orchid was hanging on, so I tried to save it, it appears to no avail. It is still alive, but not doing well. It had two blooms this year, but neither bloomed. It also developed what you cal a keiki. Even its leaves are beginning to shrivel. I just removed my orchid from its pot, and found a dark matted mess.I don’t know if all the roots are dead. It probably suffered from underwatering and then overwatering when I returned, trying to bring it back to life.

    My question is what do I do now?

    Should I cut all the dead looking roots off? It seems the only roots that may be left are aerial roots.

    Should I cut the leaves off or will they come back?

    Can I place the orchid in water until the roots grow back?

    I know I can just toss it, but it would give me great pleasure if I can “rescue” my baby!

    Warm Regards,
    Rita

    1. Anna says:

      Rita,
      I totally agree! A lot of satisfaction can be gained by saving your orchid. And, what a pity to have so many of your other plants died!
      How to (hopefully) save a rootless orchid:
      Trim away the dead roots and fasten pipe cleaners to where the roots should be growing down into the potting medium. Don’t trim the leaves. Although they will not ever be as upright as they once were, they can bounce back. You can also place the orchid under a clear plastic bag to create a mini greenhouse. The higher humidity levels will help in the recovery.
      I haven’t ever tried placing an orchid in water. I’ve heard about water therapy, but since I haven’t tried it, I can’t recommend it.
      Best of luck!
      Anna

  19. Marty says:

    Hello Anna, I see a dried like pod on leaves, like a bug egg nest. Any suggestions how to treat? I am getting ready to replant in new soil and bark also new pots. They are blooming will this hurt? Or should I treat the bug eggs with spray?

  20. Michelle says:

    My son gifted me an orchid for Mother’s Day knowing I am terrible with house plants. Its been one week since I watered it and it still feels wet. The blooms are falling off of it and Im not sure what to do. I moved it to my bedroom where the sun is more filtered and the room is less drafty. I also removed it from the secondary pot and just placed it on a saucer in the primary clear container thinking it wasn’t draining well. Is this normal and if not do you have suggestions what I should do? Thank you so much!

    1. Anna says:

      Michelle,
      If the orchid isn’t draining well, I am guessing it is potted in sphagnum moss. Wait to water until the moss feels almost dry. Then, once the orchid has finished flowering, repot your orchid using a Fir-based orchid potting medium.
      Follow these links for tips on potting:

      How to RePot Your Orchid

      Tools for RePotting Your Orchid

      Orchids are actually pretty tough.
      You’ve got this!
      Anna

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