Ask A Plant Queen: How Can I Save My Dying Orchid?

Welcome to Ask A Plant Queen, where with the help of Tula founder and bona fide plant expert Christan Summers, we'll answer every question you've ever had about the care, keeping, and presentation of houseplants. No need for you — or your pretty green pals — to thank us
Question: In her latest act of magnanimity, my aunt came to visit me in my new apartment — she hates coming into the city, so this was a big deal on its own. On top of that, she brought me a beautiful housewarming gift: an orchid with white petals tinged with violet in the middle, seated in a very nice periwinkle ceramic pot.
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What my aunt didn’t know at the time is that I am a convicted murderer… of plants. My roommates and I successful killed a ficus in college. Herbs shrivel up and die under my watch. There are clear instructions on a tag tied to the orchid: Water every 10-15 days, or when the soil feels dry to the touch.
I regret to inform you that I have failed my aunt’s lovely orchid. It is now slowly wilting, losing petals and leaves as I mourn my failure to help it not only stay alive, but thrive. I’m fairly certain the flora coroner would determine the cause of death to be homicide by overwatering. It looked thirsty; sue me.
And so I beseech you, wise plant queen: Can I save my dying orchid, or is it too far gone? What can I do differently next time? And how can we tell people to stop giving orchids as gifts? What’s so bad about a nice succulent (which I also might kill…) or a bottle of wine? Or, say a Kitchenaid stand mixer in retro aqua sky? Or even toilet paper (hey, I forget to buy it sometimes)?"
Answer: Fear not my dear orchid friend, you’ll make your dear aunt proud. Although it’s hard for me to say whether it has a chance of survival, I can promise to equip you with all the magic plant queen knowledge to keep the next one thriving.
Let’s start with the fundamental facts of orchids, which will help explain how and why orchids can be the easiest plants to care for and why they are in fact wonderful gifts to keep giving. Although toilet paper is not a bad idea!
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ILLUSTRATED BY ANJA SLIBAR
Most commercially-sold orchids are epiphytic plants, which means they grow on the surface of a plant/rock/tree, so they catch the optimal amount of sun and moisture they need to grow and bloom. This is different than a terrestrial plant, which roots itself into the ground to take nutrients from the ground.
Check out the roots of your orchid — they are thick tendrils that are succulent-like. This is how they attach onto other surfaces. Now check out the medium they are planted in, which should be moss or a mix of moss and bark. Orchids are planted in moss/bark because this medium is airy, light and will not suffocate the succulent-like roots that the orchid lives from. If an epiphytic orchid is planted in a regular potting mix, chances are the orchid roots will rot because the soil mix is too heavy and does not allow enough oxygen to circulate into the roots. Similarly, roots will rot if an epiphytic orchid is planted in a pot without drainage and no means of removing the orchid to water outside of the planter.
ILLUSTRATED BY ANJA SLIBAR
Now imagine an orchid in its native tropical rainforest environment. It is hot and humid, you spot an orchid which is growing from the crevice of two tree branches. Upon closer look you see its roots have wrapped around the trunk and leaf debris has fallen into the branch crevice creating a small nest of moisture retention for the orchid roots (aka your moss/bark mix). The sun beams break through the tree canopy above, basking the orchid for brief moments with light. When it rains, the rain trickles down the tree trunk running over the orchid roots that absorb bits of each drop as they pass. At the same time, water catches in the orchid leaves and are directed down into the roots. The orchid roots never stay too wet, they are usually put through a dry spell between rain showers. They do however have the luxury of absorbing moisture through the humid air and the leftover moisture that the tree bark has absorbed during the last rainfall.
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This scenario — rather, this environment — is what you will replicate at home. And it’s not all that complicated. There is a magic formula to orchid care at home and it goes like this:

Repotting

Your orchid should have arrived in a hole punched plastic sleeve planted in a moss/bark medium. Its not pretty, so most people will simply slip the orchid root ball (plastic sleeve and all) into a nicer looking pot. Never let your orchid sit in a puddle of water.

Sunlight & Temperature

Place your orchid where it will receive at least 2-3 hours of direct light a day and the rest of the day the light is bright and indirect. Remember the light beams streaming through the tree canopy.
Keep your home temp between 60-80 degrees. Don’t let it get cold, hot is totally fine.

Watering & Misting

ILLUSTRATED BY ANJA SLIBAR
If you’ve followed steps 1-3, then once week bring your orchid to the sink and fill it with water until the orchid roots are submerged underneath. Let the orchid sit in the water for at least 5 minutes. This is so the moss, bark and roots absorb as much moisture as they can hold. After this time, drain the sink and let your orchid drain any access water.
During the grow season, you’ll add a few tablespoons of liquid fertilizer to the water (organic only, please!) so they roots get the extra nutrients they need.
If you want to give some extra love, mist your orchid leaves and roots a few times during the week, between waterings.
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Voila! That’s it! You’ve replicated a tropical rainforest and you are now an orchid growing expert.
And why do I say orchids are still a wonderful gift to give? They will re-bloom for years! My childhood best friend sent me an orchid five years ago and it has re-bloomed every year since. So one could say that by best friend re-gifts me every year without even trying.
So, perhaps your orchid is on its last leg but I promise you there is another orchid out there that needs your care. And if you try your luck at getting it to re-bloom, it may delight you with the most beautiful flower surprise.
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