Phalaenopsis orchids continue to be, and likely forever will be, the most popular houseplant orchid. Their long-lasting flowers have become an exotic, economical, and effective replacement for cut flowers. In addition, Phalaenopsis orchids do not require direct sun and prefer average room temperatures, making them one of the best flowering houseplants.
Despite our best efforts, we are sometimes confronted with the observation that one of our plants doesn’t look quite right. For example, Sandy writes, “A couple of my Phalaenopsis orchids look like they are wilting. What do I do?!” First off, thanks for sending photos Sandy, that really helps.
When any plant appears to be wilting, our first instinctual response is that the plant needs water. And while that is likely true, a more appropriate question is, “Why is the plant lacking water?” Sure, most plants wilt when they are not getting enough water; they simply need more water. But with epiphytic orchids that live in trees, like Phalaenopsis, we may have a different situation.
Just because your Phalaenopsis orchid is wilting, does not necessarily mean you need to water it right now. Yes, the plant may be lacking water, but that does not mean you need to water it right now. You might now say, “Wait Chuck, that sounds kinda silly. Shouldn’t I always water a wilting plant right away?” Good question; let me continue.
Remember Phalaenopsis orchids, like many orchids, are epiphytes. That is, they live in trees or on other plants. They have adaptations to survive periods where water is lacking. However, the roots of Phalaenopsis orchids, adapted for living in trees, quickly rot from lack of air when the roots remain constantly wet.
A wilting Phalaenopsis orchid therefore, may have actually suffered from over-watering to the extent that all the roots have rotted and died, leaving the plant with no means to uptake water…until new roots have grown. If conditions do not improve (e.g. if you continue to water) new roots will not grow and the plant will die.
Therefore, to deal with a wilting Phalaenopsis, first take the orchid out of the pot and inspect the roots!
If the roots appear healthy and firm, the plant has likely become too dry. Give it a good watering and provide optimal conditions, including supplemental humidity.
On the other hand, if almost all of the roots appear rotted and dead, the plant may need to be repotted, sometimes into a smaller container, depending on the orchid. Orchids that have been severely over-watered often need to be removed from their current pot, have all the dead roots removed, and be repotted into the same size or smaller pot with fresh potting media.
In cases where there are no healthy roots remaining, the idea is to create an environment (warm and humid) for the plant to grow roots. One such approach is called the “Sphag N Bag” method. [I’m not sure where this term originated, and I don’t want to steal anyone’s credit; I think I first read the term in an Orchids magazine. Click on this to download a free issue.]
The idea is to enclose your wilting Phalaenopsis orchid in a clear plastic with wet sphagnum moss in the bottom, leaving a small hole in the top of the bag for ventilation. This creates a humidity tent for the plant. Place the bag in a very bright location with no direct sun. Keep the moss moist and do not water the plant. After a week or two in this environment, the leaves may no longer look like they are wilting. Unfortunately, in some cases orchids have been over-watered, and the roots or the whole plant have rotted to an extent that the plant cannot recover.
For more information, see my book How Orchids Rebloom. Chapter 2 describes all you need to know about Repotting your orchid, and Chapter 10 helps you with Diagnosing Orchid Problems.
A “wilting” Phalaenopsis orchid may not necessarily need water.
A Phalaenopsis orchid may be “wilting”,
because the roots have died from too much water, (i.e. lack of air).
As a result, the plant now lacks a means to uptake water.
If your orchid appears to be wilting, take the plant out of the pot and inspect the roots.