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How to Understand Those Curious Orchid Roots

Healthy Roots = Healthy Orchids

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curious orchid roots

Understanding an orchid’s unique roots is central to nurturing these singular plants. You’ve noticed that some while some of your orchid’s roots burrow down into the potting media, while other roots seem to take on a life of their own without any inclination of growing down into the pot with the other roots. This is completely normal. In fact, these roots have a name: aerial roots.

All About Orchid Roots

The first time I potted an orchid I was amazed at just how different that experience was from planting my annual spring flower pots. From their showy flowers to their peculiar roots, orchids are completely extraordinary. After handling their roots, which are so unlike the root balls I was accustomed to, I had to find out about these curious creations.

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Velamen

Orchid roots are sometimes referred to as aerial roots, but that is not a sufficient definition because unlike most other aerial roots, orchid roots are not looking for a place to burrow down into.  They truly live in the air.  Most orchids will have aerial roots reaching out into the air, rather than digging down into the potting media. These roots are looking for a tree branch to attach to. These roots absorb moisture from the air. Do not trim off these wandering roots, just let them do their thing. 

Orchid roots have a covering called velamen which acts like a sponge, soaking up water.   The velamen also protects the roots.  Special cells in the velamen transport the water to the stele, which is like a blood vein for orchids, which then delivers nutrients to the pseudobulb and leaves.  

just-watered-orchid-roots.png

Healthy Roots

Healthy roots are firm to the touch and white to green in color.  Orchid roots do not need to be bright green all of the time.  In fact, they should only be bright green right after they are watered.  If the roots are always bright green that is an indication that they are drowning.  Such orchids will eventually die from over watering.

healthy-orchid-roots-unpotted.png

Unhealthy Roots

If you end up with a dead orchid, before throwing it out, take time to check out the roots.  This will give clues about its cause of death and help you to avoid future problems.  Rotted roots are easily identified because they are brown, mushy and hollow.  These roots are probably the result of over watering.  Brittle roots indicated under watering.

If the plant is still alive, but the roots have all died and turned to mush, the plant may still be saved.  Remove all the dead roots and use chenille stems, aka pipe cleaners, to anchor the plant in the pot while it makes new roots.  It’s worth a try.  I’ve talked to an orchid grower who said she’s tried it twice successfully and once unsuccessfully.

rotten-orchid-roots.png

Orchids live harmlessly on trees, never penetrating the branches. Their aerial roots are made to absorb water from rain. Since the roots do not sit in water, it’s easy to see why over watering orchids is so harmful to their root systems.

Watering Orchids: Find Out What Works

Learn how to water correctly and you'll avoid the #1 cause of orchid death

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Aerial Roots

On some orchids it can be tricky to tell the difference between a flower spike and an aerial root. This is how to tell the difference: an aerial root will have a smooth tip. The end of an emerging flower spike will look like a closed fist with knuckle bumps.

smooth tip - orchid root

The smooth tip is a sure sign that this is a root, not a flower stalk.

fist at tip - flower stalk

Pictured above is a flower stalk. If you see a “fist” at the tip, you know you’ve got a flower stalk.

Check out my EBOOK: WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR GROCERY STORE ORCHID to learn how to care for you Phalaenopsis orchid.

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Is it Okay to Cut off Aerial Roots?

It may be tempting to cut of aerial roots because they don’t fit into our idea of what a beautiful orchid should look like. Resist. Aerial roots perform important functions for the orchid. Like the leaves and stems, aerial roots aid in photosynthesis. Aerial roots also absorb water and nutrients in the air. Additionally, aerial roots aid the orchid in affixing itself to its host.

Watering and Aerial Roots

Sometimes aerial roots can look dried out and it can be tempting to water the orchid. To avoid rotting the roots down in the potting media, don’t let the aerial roots tell you when to water your orchid. Instead, look at, or even touch, the potting media. If it is still damp, wait to water.

If the aerial roots are looking dried out, you have several options. First, you can mist the roots with a spray bottle . Just be careful not to raise humidity levels above 50% in a home environment. Second, you could increase the humidity around your orchid. Third, just let them be.

Personally, I’m more inclined to go with the second and third options. The first one is too time consuming and I find that if I’m too fussy with my orchids, I tend to cause more hard than good. I keep a cool-mist humidifier on the lowest setting. And, I just let those aerial do what they are going to do.

Potting Aerial Roots

When potting an orchid, leave aerial roots in the air and potted roots in the potting medium. Aerial roots have a thicker coating of velamin and and physiologically different than roots that are growing in the potting medium.

Enjoy the Journey

No matter of you’re resisting the urge to cut off every last aerial root, or if you find them intriguing enjoy your orchid growing journey!

Find out more about potting orchids:

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The Why and The When of Repotting Orchids

Pottting at the right time vastly improves how well your orchid will adapt.

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How to RePot an Orchid: A Beginners Guide

For optimum health, repot your orchid every 1-2 years. Come learn how.

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Top Tools for RePotting Orchids

Potting Orchids Just Got Easier

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33 Comments
  1. judy says:

    thank you. this helped a lot. very educational. now I know why lol.

    1. Anna says:

      Orchid roots are definitely out of the ordinary. I’m glad I could be of help!

  2. Adelson Espindola says:

    MY VANDA ORCHID THE ROOTS STOP GROWING. WHAT SOULD I DO?

    REGARDS

    ADELSON ESPINDOLA

    1. Anna says:

      Adelson,
      I don’t grow Vandas as they I can’t give them what they need (enough light and humidity) where I live, but I did read an orchid forum where another person was having a similar problem with his Vanda. Here’s what he said: Just an update: I removed [the Vanda] from its pot and it was still doing nothing but sitting there. I decided to take measures into my own hands 3 days ago and put it in a vase with water in the bottom and placed it in a sunny window. Lo and behold, new roots are popping up everywhere! I don’t know why I didn’t try it before, since that’s how I got my first Vanda to take off. So, a lesson to anyone reading who is having trouble getting their Vanda to spread its wings: try this method. It’s almost fool-proof. (This is the third time it’s work for me). Once the roots are long enough (shouldn’t be more than about 2-3 weeks time), it’s okay to put it back in it’s pot/basket/whatever. They just need a nudge to get going sometimes and this is the perfect way to do it (Orchid Talk Forum).
      I hope this helps! Vandas are spectacular!
      Anna

  3. Anonymous says:

    These plants are incredible. Thanks for the extra knowledge.

    1. Anna says:

      Thank you!!

  4. Donna Lawless says:

    Thank you so much for this info. Oh my how I wish I had seen and read this article last week. I cut off the aerials ? now I shall be holding my breath. I have had these orchids for 10 ? years. There were so many aerials and so long, So much for tidying up orchids. I hope after all this time I didn’t kill them. Stay tuned…..

    1. Anna says:

      Donna,
      Let me know how your orchids do. They can be pretty resilient.
      Anna

  5. Manuel says:

    Please keep me updated on orchids raising thank you

    1. Anna says:

      I will! Thanks Manuel!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Very informative, indeed! Thank you so much. Jay

    1. Anna says:

      Thank you Jay!
      Anna

  7. Kathi-Ann says:

    Anna,
    The use of photos are an excellent learning tool. I’m having much better success with my orchids.
    Thanks again.

    Kathi-Ann

    1. Anna says:

      Thank you Kathi Ann! I love hearing from you!
      Anna

  8. Kathi-Ann Charles says:

    Anna,

    I am now exactly sure what a flower spike looks like as to a root tip.
    Thanks, it was pretty confusing before.
    I have a den hanging under my mango tree and it is in spike. Wala!!

    1. Anna says:

      Kathi Ann,
      That is so exciting! I love it when I see flower stalks growing!
      Anna

  9. Kathi-Ann Charles says:

    Love the difference, a fist vs a tip. Clearly understood.

  10. Anonymous says:

    A very informative read, thank you for the information.

    1. Anna says:

      THANK YOU!
      Anna

  11. Yami says:

    Thank you so much for all the info. Here’s a tips for those who grow Vandas without roots: I turn them upside down and water them every morning and like magic the roots appear. I keep my own under a tree and it works perfectly.

    1. Anna says:

      Yami,
      Thanks for sharing your tips on growing Vandas. I really appreciate it, especially as I don’t grow Vandas.
      Anna

  12. Joy says:

    Do you use a special bark to pot orchids? I bought some bark that is to use with repotting orchids . Is this the correct medium to use?

    1. Anna says:

      Joy,
      Yes, I do use a special bark-based potting mix. There are two advantages to using a bark to pot orchids. First, bark allows for air to circulate around the roots. Second, it is hard to over-water bark based potting medium. But, on the other hand, it is easy to under-water bark based potting medium. Be sure to water frequently and to allow the water to drain out. Orchids do not like to sit in water. Also, the orchid will need to be watered a lot in the beginning. After a while the bark will become more absorbent. Here is a link for the bark-based potting medium I use: Bonsai Jack’s Premium Potting Mix.
      Have a great day!
      Anna

  13. Donna Cunningham says:

    My orchid’s leaves are turning yellow and brown and are falling off. All of the roots are bad except for one big fat green one so I cut them all off. I hope it’s going to live. What do I do?

    1. Anna says:

      Donna,
      Sounds like your orchid is in a bad way. You can try to save your orchid by putting a clear plastic bag over it to create an extra humid environment while it recovers roots and leaves. Even if the orchid can’t be saved, the most important step is to try to figure out what went wrong and try again. I am guessing the primary culprit was over watering. Check out this post on watering orchids. Learning to properly orchids is the first step to successfully growing orchids. It was the one I struggled with when learning to care for my orchids.
      Best of luck!
      Anna

  14. Novella Byrd says:

    You are right in your description that aerial roots seem to take on a life of their own!! I am truly enjoying watching them, I bought several phalaenopsis from a grocery floral department; I’m hooked! I am so impatient about waiting for them to bloom again, any tips on getting them to bloom again quicker?

    Thank you

    1. Anna says:

      Novella,
      Yes, waiting for Phalaenopsis to rebloom can really test our patience! For guidelines on reblooming orchids check out this post: Tips in ReBlooming Orchids. Give it time and you will get the flowers you’ve been waiting for.
      Thanks,
      Anna

  15. Ria says:

    So informative..
    I love watching orchids grow. I have a few oncidium which are good. My dendrobium in turn is literally in ICU after a severe fungal attack.little worried about her. She produced two keikes and were growing new roots 6-10 in number but after potting almost all green root tips either stopped growing or turned pale.we can still see the growing tips but not green but pale. Will you tell me what happened to them.

  16. Christine says:

    Hello,
    I’ve tried looking for a specific answer to my question over the internet and it doesn’t seem to be out there yet. So, I’m hoping, if I post my question, you’ll be able to help me.
    The orchid I have had healthy aerial roots but was wobbly in the pot. So, I unpotted it and found the vast majority of the submerged roots had rotted. The plant has four big healthy glossy green strong leaves. I trimmed the hollow, flaky, rotted roots (using sterile scissors), repotted the plant and dampened the growing medium with orchid fertilizer mixed with a splash of rooting hormone.
    Upon repotting, a handful of the aerial roots are now submerged. A couple of the aerial roots are still above the growing medium. I thought submerging a couple of the aerial roots would be a good thing because there’s not much left down the bottom of the plant. Have I done the right thing? What would you recommend?
    Thanks for your help,
    Christine

    1. Anna says:

      Christine,

      Congratulations! You did the right thing. While often it is best to leave aerial roots out in the air, and not pot them, in cases where the root system has been compromised and the roots are needed for stability, potting some of the aerial roots can be a good thing.

      Potting in fir bark will help prevent overwatering. Repotting every 1-2 years will keep the potting mix fresh, also helping to prevent overwatering.

      You did great! And, you learned a lot.
      Anna

  17. Anonymous says:

    I will have to read your very interesting tips again but you have given me more confidence to repot my first orchid which I think is the mono type, thank you so much l have decided to try another one and follow your advice Diane.

    1. Anna says:

      Diane,
      I have confidence in you too! You’ve got this. It will feel a little strange the first time as orchid roots are different from other plants.
      Good Luck!
      Anna

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START HERE to Learn More About Caring for Orchids

Find Out What I Wish I Knew When I First Started Caring for Orchids

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