The first time I unpotted an orchid, I was quite taken back by how different the roots looked like compared to the roots of ‘normal’ houseplants.
Because most orchids are ‘air plants’, plants that grow on trees, etc., that’s what their roots are; different. Therefore they have their own needs and behavior. I will cover a handful of common questions about orchid roots below.
So, can you cut orchid roots? Yes, you can. Cut the roots with a sterilized pair of scissors, removing all the dry or mushy roots. Spray with hydrogen peroxide 3% when finished cutting, to disinfect the roots.
Cutting orchid roots is necessary in case of root problems, like rotting and dehydration. Removing all the bad roots is vital for the orchid to survive.
On the contrary, healthy roots should be left as they are, because they are the orchid’s lifeline.
Even though trimming some healthy roots would not kill the orchid, it does create stress on the plant.
Fewer roots also decrease the amount of water the plant can absorb, so more the roots the better.
Trimming orchid air roots
The function of aerial roots is to absorb water and nutrients from the air and to cling on to surfaces (hence being ‘air plants’). Some people love the look of air roots, but others find them visibly disturbing.
So can you trim air roots? The quick answer is: well, yes you can. Should you trim them? Preferably not.
Aerial roots can save your orchid from death if the plant suddenly loses all its roots inside the pot – which isn’t unheard of.
Sometimes the plant can appear fine on the surface, but once you remove all the old potting media, you discover a bad case of root rot or dehydration, even a pest problem.
In which case, you’re forced to trim all the dead roots, leaving the plant with few or even no roots at all. In cases like this, aerial roots are a savior!
How to grow orchid roots
If you have an orchid with very few roots, and want to stimulate the plant’s root growth, there are a few things you can do.
Firstly, if the plant has a flower spike or is starting to grow one, cut it off. This is because you want the plant to direct all its energy on growing roots, instead of a flower spike which requires tremendous energy.
To stimulate root growth, you can repot your orchid. Take it out of its old potting media, rinse or soak the roots, clean the root system, and put in fresh media in a clean container.
If the old pot has enough space for the roots, then there’s no need to upsize – orchids like smaller space. In most cases the fresh potting media alone can jumpstart the orchid’s root growth.
Just remember moisture is important, so make sure to keep watering your orchid as needed.
Another thing you can do is to put the orchid in moss-only. Moss retains a lot of moisture. Orchids with fewer roots have a higher need for humidity, so using a water-retentive medium is beneficial.
Put the plant in moss and keep it moist at all times. Choose a pot size that fits in the roots without too much extra space. Repot when the plant has grown new roots.
Another way to stimulate root growth is to put the plant in a container with only water in it. Let only the roots touch the water. This method is called ‘water culture’.
To provide extra humidity you can put a plastic bag over it, or place the entire plant in its container inside a see-through plastic box with a lid on.
This creates a humid environment which the plant can absorb humidity from through the leaves and aerial roots.
I have used this method with orchids that had only a few roots left if any.
Another stimulant for root growth can be fertilizer. Use either a balanced fertilizer, like 20-20-20, which is a good general fertilizer. Or you can pick a fertilizer that contains more Phosphorus (P), which is responsible for root growth. (Phosphorus is the middle number of the three digits displayed in fertilizer bottles)
Lastly, if you prefer something more DIY, you can water your orchid with tea water. Yes, you heard it right! Using a normal tea bag (black tea), dip it in lukewarm water until the water has a faint color.
Black tea contains Tannic Acid which works as a growth stimulator. Add a few drops of lemon juice in the liquid (4-5 drops to 1 liter), and use it to water your orchid as normal.
What to do with overgrown orchid roots
Is your orchid being pushed out of its pot, because of overgrown roots? This is only a good sign because it means your orchid is thriving. So there’s nothing to panic about – quite the opposite!
Overgrown roots show it’s time to repot your orchid. Even though orchids like less space, the roots need potting media around them, because that’s where they absorb their nutrition from.
So if the overgrown roots are literally pushing the plant out of its pot, you can go ahead and repot it.
When repotting, trim off all the bad roots – if you lose many, the plant might fit back in the old pot. But if most or all the roots are fine, then choose a pot that is only slightly bigger than the old one.
With overgrown aerial roots, even though I have heard of people who trim them, I wouldn’t advise to do this.
The aerial roots are natural and serve a purpose, so it’s best to keep them for the sake of your orchid. Unless, of course, they have completely dried out, then you can safely cut them off.
Are your orchid roots turning yellow?
If you notice some of your orchid roots have turned yellow, or even white, don’t worry – they’re still perfectly healthy roots. The reason they’re not green is simply that they haven’t received light.
Orchid roots and leaves photosynthesize – photosynthesis produces chlorophyll, which contains the green pigment. This can happen only in the presence of light.
So when there’s no light, photosynthesis can’t occur, and therefore the production of chlorophyll can’t occur, which would have turned the root or leaf green.
So if you have this kind of yellow or white roots, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. Leave them be; they’re perfectly fine.
Can orchids grow without soil
To many orchid lovers’ surprise, orchids can live without potting media too. This is a newer and a steadily growing way to keep orchids.
Instead of using potting media, the orchid is simply placed in a glass vase/container, letting only the roots touch the water. This is called ‘Water Culture’.
Many people prefer this method because it eliminates pest problems and saves growers from the hassle of having to repot. And many do it purely for visual reasons.
Orchids can thrive in water culture, but it’s not guaranteed all orchids take on to it. So if you are interested in trying it for yourself, test it with one or two plants first, before transferring them all.
And even then, some individual orchids might have to be transferred back to potting media, if they struggle in water culture.
There are two ways to do water culture; ‘Full water culture’ (FWC) and ‘Semi-water culture’ (SWC).
In ‘full water culture’, the plant’s roots are in the water at all times. The water should cover only 1/3 or 1/4 of the roots.
Semi-water culture alternates between wet and dry days; the plant’s roots are soaked in water over a few days, which after the water is poured out and the roots are kept dry for the next few days.
The amount of days is determined by the environment and the orchid, so every orchid grower finds their own schedule. But it could be two wet days, followed by two dry days; or five wet days, followed by two dry days. It depends on the growing environment, how long it takes for the roots to dry.
You can read more about water-culture HERE
I hope this article has answered some of your questions relating orchid roots. We talked about cutting the roots inside the pots, trimming aerial roots, ways to stimulate root growth, what to do with overgrown roots, keeping orchids without soil… There’s so much to talk about roots!
Even though most people find orchid flowers the most exciting part of keeping orchids, roots truly determine your plant’s overall well-being.
If the plant has a healthy and robust root system, the plant will be strong and healthy – and vice versa. So it’s really important to keep an eye on the roots at all times, to prevent something terrible happening to them.
It’s so common to have orchids lose their roots due to insufficient watering; too much or too little.
Even though an orchid without roots has a chance of being saved with the right care, you want to prevent root loss from happening in the first place.
So give as much time, love and care to the roots, as you would to the flowers.
On that note ~ thank you for reading, orchid friends!
Excellent explained. I bookmarked your website
Thanks, Timothy. Glad to hear that!
Thank you for this info. I bookmarked this. Your page was the only one that answered my question about the yellow/white roots and lack of sun. Another site was saying to cut them which didn’t make sense to me. Lots of good info here. Thank you!
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Hi Puma. Thanks for your nice comment!
michelle rodgers says
I have lost my orchid roots due to neglect (but they have great air roots) and am trying to regrow the roots with a partial water culture. Do I understand that I can soak the air roots in the water culture? Do I need to use a clear container for the roots to receive sunlight?
Hi Michelle. Sorry to hear about your orchid. Yes, you can do water-culture with the aerial roots. I’d let 1/4 – 1/2 of the roots to be in water, in a clear container. Keep an eye on the leaves – if they start to look dehydrated (wrinkled) then the plant isn’t getting enough hydration. In which case you can gently mist the leaves for extra hydration. Once you see new roots coming out, you can put the orchid in moss-only. That normally works very well with rootless orchids. Good luck!
Fanny Abrahami says
Thank you for your precise advice. I have an orchid maybe 10 years old. In good health. Last year one of the flowers on the spike morphed into a plant- very healthy with 5 leaves and aerial roots. What should I do with this piggy back plantlet? Fsnny
Hi Fanny. Wow, 10 years – that’s impressive! You’re obviously taking a good care of your orchid. Congratulations!
What comes to the little plant… it’s a “keiki”! Some people call it the orchid’s “baby”, but in reality it’s an identical clone of the mother plant. I’d advice you to separate it. Now that it has grown bigger, you can safely cut it off and plant it in moss and/or fine bark. You can leave it attached too, but it’s energy-draining for the mother plant to support it, and especially now that it has grown bigger.
Hi! I repotted my orchid a few weeks ago and cut the dead roots. I pulled it out tonight to take a look and some of the tips of the roots are black again. Is this normal?
Hi Anne. It’s good to spray the whole root system with Hydrogen Peroxide 3% once you’re done cutting. It kills all the bacteria etc.
Also, make sure no bad tissue (in the roots/root tips) is left behind, otherwise it can continue spreading – could this be the case with your orchid? After trimming, the roots shouldn’t really turn black again – not that fast. Unless if bad tissue was left behind..
Repotting is stressful for an orchid because it needs time to adapt to the new growing environment, so you could just let your orchid be for now. Keep an eye on it though. Otherwise, if you re-trim the ends, remember to spray the whole root system with hydrogen peroxide 3%! After that you could even let the orchid be for 1-2 days before repotting, so the roots have time to “air out” and the freshly trimmed tips close.
Fedja Jeleskovic says
Thanks for great article! I am starting to fall in love with these flowers and I am wondering if another plant can be spawn from its roots that stick outside of the pot. I have even cut one of them and placed it into the small water glass, but 2 weeks later, nothing changed. Is this even possible? If so, is there any link on this site that would help with that?
Thanks a lot!
Thank you for your nice comment. I’m happy to hear you’ve been bitten by the orchid bug too! 🙂
Regarding your question.. Sadly, it’s not possible to propagate (phalaenopsis) orchids from the roots. The only function the roots have is to absorb water and nutrition to the plant, and to hold on to the growing surface.
The only way to naturally make a new orchid is with seeds. So first you would have to pollinate a flower, which then turns into a seedpod. After a few months the seeds can be collected. However, to create a suitable growing medium for the seeds, is like a mad scientist project! I’ve tried and failed. It’s VERY difficult. There are some greenhouses/laboratories in USA that can do this for you if you send them some seeds. But it costs money and takes a long time.
There’s one shortcut though; keiki paste. It’s a hormonal paste that tricks the orchid to clone itself – this clone (keiki), or ‘baby’ as some like to call it, can be separated from the mother plant when it’s big enough. But it’s an identical clone of the orchid you already have, so do it only if you want two of the same kind.
Hope this helped! 🙂
Trim an orchid root or stem only if it’s dry and you’re certain it’s dead, but work carefully to avoid cutting too deep and harming the plant. Be sure to sanitize your cutting tool by wiping the blades with rubbing alcohol or a solution of water and bleach before you begin.
johanna clark says
I have a orchid air root that about 2 feet long at work in a window. I had the plant for about 3 years now. The roots are about to hit the floor and i cant move the plant high up so can I cut the roots the are very healthy. Can you tell me what else i can do if I cant cut them.
Oh wow, those are some long aerial roots! They do serve a purpose and I wouldn’t normally recommend to cut them, but in your situation, you CAN trim them for space-reasons. Just remember to use sterilized scissors when you do it! (Wipe the blades with rubbing alcohol etc)
johanna clark says
Thanks so much, I didn’t want to kill it. I will take a picture of it and post it is amazing.
You’re very welcome! Would love to see the photo!
Clarence Grays says
Hi, I found your website with a lot of useful information. Well written and easy to understand – has helped me a lot.
P. Senadheera says
Hi. I am an orchid grower from Sri Lanka. I found that your article great and very helpful to all orchid lovers.
Keep writing more.
Thank you so much for your positive comment!
You have fantastic growing conditions for orchids in Sri Lanka!
Take care, and please visit my blog again soon.
Your style is unique in comparison to other folks
I have read stuff from. Thanks for posting when you have the opportunity,
Guess I’ll just bookmark this page.
Thank you for your advice.
Kathy Bartz says
I just stumbled across your site and absolutely love it. I will be putting you on my home screen. I have grown a few orchards in my time and only one lived for years and did rebloom but then it eventually died so, I am trying again. They are challenging and fun and you feel good when it works right! So my question is, I just brought home an orchid from a garden center that was almost done blooming and putting a corner to sell cheap and so thought I should repot it and take a look at the roots which there were several shriveled above and below so no problem I get it, I cut those out. But here’s my question and this just kills me, there are some beautiful thick multi-branching roots that look wonderful but the top two or three inches are squishy and part of the covering has disappeared so there’s like little strings that it’s hanging onto. I just am having a hard time bringing myself to cutting that beautiful root off. Can you please tell me what to do!!!
Many thanks for your time, your knowledge, and your wonderful thorough advice. So glad I found you!
Thank you for your lovely comment and support – made my day!
Glad to hear you’re giving orchids another go. Maybe this time you can make them last for years! At least you can find help here on this blog.
I know exactly what you mean with those roots you described! I normally just clean out that upper part, remove the mushy section gently with my fingers. As the bottom part of the roots look strong and healthy, then just leave them be.
With roots like that, often the good part ends up dying too. But meanwhile they’re still good functioning roots! It will take time for the end part to die. And maybe 1-2 years from now you can repot again, and then remove the dead pieces.
Are you repotting immediately, or letting the orchid stand in water for a while?
Thank you again for the lovely comment!
Kathy S Bartz says
Thank you so much Irene for your reassuring advice. Yes I did let it soak in water for a while like maybe 10 minutes before I repotted it. I did leave the particular roots we talked about, attached but unfortunately I did not gently scrape off the dead stuff up above so I will keep an eye on that.
I am so glad to have found your website and sure appreciate all of your knowledge and effort. I’m sure it is very time-consuming for you but no you are appreciated.
Many thanks, Kathy
Kathy S Bartz says
Oh it’s Kathy again I have one more question.
I sprayed my orchid roots after getting all of the medium out of there, with a weak solution of neem oil. Do you think that was a bad idea? I haven’t repotted it yet and according to your advice I should soak the roots in water for a little while anyway before I repot it which should remove any neem oil I sprayed on there. So I guess my question is should I respray it or should I not use neem oil on bear roots like that?
Thank you again so much, Kathy
Good question. Neem oil leaves behind a thin coating, so I wouldn’t necessarily want it on the roots – just in case it affects the roots’ water absorption. It might not, but better safe than sorry?
That said, as you soaked the roots that must have been enough to rinse off the excess Neem oil from them.
Generally speaking, less on the roots, the better. And if you ever get something on the roots, then just rinse or soak them.
Good luck with your new orchid!
Kathy Bartz says
Once again thank you Irene. So I did air on the side of caution and rinsed the neem oil off of the roots. I would have sprayed them with hydrogen peroxide but I didn’t have any that was active but I do know.
Good to know though, not to do that again. I’m glad I rinsed them off.
Take care Irene and stay healthy, Kathy
So nice to hear from you again. And thank you so much for your kind words and support! Means a lot.
With hydrogen peroxide, just remember to use the 3% strength – anything stronger than that will burn the plant.
All the best with your orchid journey! This blog is here for you if you need any help or inspiration!
Take good care!
Sorry – long story! I had gotten a new plant for mother’s day and noticed that my other plants were looking a bit sad. So I repotted my old orchids a few months ago with BetterGro orchid potting mix. At the time I also watered it with fertilized water using MiracleGro orchid food. A couple of weeks later, I noticed my orchids not looking so great. I tried to water them, then I tried to NOT water them, since I wasn’t sure if the medium wasn’t properly draining.
(Back story – I’ve owned 3 orchid plants for years, but after they flowered, only one plant managed to grow a new flower spike after the first one when I got it from the store. Then I just left then be and watered occasionally – I didn’t really research how to care for them until now.)
Then my new plant started dying, and realized that my orchids had been over watered. Sadly, since I didn’t know how to handle the situation, my new orchid died. And I am in the process of trying to save my original 3. On one of them, the bottom leaves started yellowing and are about to fall off.
I removed the 3 from their pots and most of their terrestrial roots had died. Each one has a relatively long terrestrial root, and they do have relatively decent aerial roots, so I think they’ll survive if I baby them.
I found your blog and decided to do the water culture. I cut the dead stuff off. But I noticed some of the roots (both types) were pinching off near the base of the plant, even though they appear healthy. They’re basically hanging by a thread.
So I have a few questions:
1. I haven’t cut the pinched roots, since they appear otherwise healthy roots. Why is that happening? Can I do anything about it?
2. I’m trying the tea water method. How often do I change the water?
2a. I notice after a couple of days that the roots appear to get a little fuzzy, so I’ve changed the water. Is a little fuzzy ok? I don’t want to stress the plants out more than they already are.
3. Is it ok to add some fertilizer (diluted in water) to the tea water?
4. Is it ok for the aerial roots to be in the water?
5. Is it ok for 100% of the terrestrial roots to be in the water, since they’re pinching off at the base?
6. Since I’m trying to regrow roots, should they avoid the sun? They’re are already NOT getting enough sun because when I started researching, I realized deep, dark green leaves are not good. Lol. The only spot by the window that is not direct sun, is a shady NW facing window. I had bought a cheap “blurple” light to try and get it more light, but I’m not sure it’s doing much. They’ve been in the plants for a free hours a day, and the leaves are still pretty dark green.
7. I have an old aquarium bubbler… Do you think that would help the plants at all, to keep the water from being stagnant and to give it air? It was just a thought, along the lines of hydroponics.
8. Hopefully the orchids will recover, so do you have any recommendations for the type of moss to use?
Thank you so much for your help and information. You’re one of the few people who have recommended water culture, and I think it’s helping! (My husband probably thinks I’m crazy for trying to save these plants, but I hate to see them die!) Thank you, thank you, for any and all advice you can give!
Here are the answers to your questions;
1. This is not uncommon. They’ve just at some point rotted from the top, leaving only the string part left. The rest of the root is still functioning! Roots like this can die out over time, but for now just let them be.
2. I’d do only one black tea soak overnight. After that use ‘normal’ water.
2a. Hmm, depends what kind of fuzz we’re talking about? You mean like slime or mold, or real hair-like fuzz? Mold (white) should be rinsed off. And if you see it occur often, then give it some dry days. (Add water again when the roots look dry’ish) (Are you doing FWC or SWC?)
3. It can be okay, but I’d say less is more. Your ‘chids are already dealing with a huge change with adapting to water culture! So try not to stress them too much. (I know it’s hard) 😉
4. Yeah it’s fine. Especially in this case! (Also, consider adding humidity trays or water bowls, if you think the orchids need more humidity!)
5. I’d only do 100% if I’m giving the roots a treatment – like the tea soak or fertilizer.. Other than that I’d cover only 3/4 (SWC) or 1/4 (FWC) of the roots.
6. Avoiding the sun is mainly for heat purposes, especially during summer months! So keep an eye on that – no too high temps! The light you bought, I’m sure it’s doing the job! The leaf color will take time to change anyway, so just keep using the light.
7. Well, it does sound like a good idea actually! But for now, you could just see how they get on with WC. They need time to adapt! (Don’t panic if old roots start to die out! New ones will grow) If you think the aquarium bubbler is needed at some point, then try it out. 😊
8. Yes, I hope they recover too! Just be patient (as hard as it is!) and keep an eye on them. And stick with one method at a time, because a change is always stressful to orchids. With moss, yes – you can see some examples HERE.
Thank you so much for your lovely comment and positive words, Joselle! Glad to be of any help and support. I definitely don’t think you’re crazy for trying to save your orchids! It’s also extra satisfying to make struggling orchids thrive again! And hey, I’m here for you if you need more help! GOOD LUCK! 🍀
Beverly Lyle Patt says
Quick question- and maybe a dumb one? My orchid’s roots are definitely pushing the plant out of the pot. The plant also has a good 12-15 foot-long air roots. When I repot, do I put these roots in the soil or do I leave them to grow in the air? They’re kind of ugly! Lol. Also, would just leaving a bowl of water next to the plant help? Thx.
There are no dumb questions – only questions! 😊
Sounds like it’s definitely time to repot your orchid!
Normally the areal roots are left as they are. But if they really disturb you, then you can put them in the soil as long as you can do it without breaking them.
Also, remember to pick a suitable orchid potting mix when you repot: SEE HERE
And instructons to how to repot: SEE HERE
And YES, you can put a bowl of water by the orchid!
Good luck! 😊
I have several orchid plants and some have rebloomed it does take awhile but I do enjoy the green leaves while I’m waiting for them to rebloom. I have a question, when the flowers drop I cut the stem back to about 3 inches. This is the question. I just got a new plant the stem is curved and it is about 24inches long. The flowers were about 4 inch and they didn’t last Now that they dropped do I cut back the stem and if so where do I cut it?
Here you can see the exact way how to trim the flower spike;
“How to cut back a flower spike”
This answered a lot of questions I had, but what happens if roots keep growing outside of the pot even after repotting in a bigger pot? Best way to describe it, it’s as if it’s spidering out.. I hope that made sense. Thanks in advance