Phalaenopsis - Watering,  How to


In the interest of full disclosure, I am not attracted to the Phalaenopsis.  I do not consider this orchid in the top 29,700 on my list and their are over 30,000 species of orchids.  My reason is that where I reside, they are more "work" than "recreation".  Due to environmental conditions, it is a lot of work to sustain these guys without a proper greenhouse.

Having said that, on occasion I do pick up some mini-phalaenopsis for various projects, and they do require extra care and effort. I have provided here a guide for those to follow that also live in a dry environment that can be very hot during the summer, cold during the winter, but the biggest antagonist is the relative low humidity.


orchid roots have adapted to take up the most water possible in the first 60 seconds they are exposed to water



Some Background Information

Having a bare minimum basic knowledge of your orchid's physical and geographical origin on Earth including climate conditions, like the wet slope of a mountain in a cloud forest, compared to an orchid with a geo-location on the opposite, but dry side of that same mountain is a sign that even if these orchids are located less than 5 miles (as a crow flies) between them, they require different types of care.  The Phal. be found in the cloud forest, where monsoonal rains for half or more of the year and the rest of the year is slightly dryer (perfect for blooming).  In nature, orchids grow in monsoon areas…they get drenched for weeks at a time; so it really doesn’t make sense that they can be “over watered”, right? ( Phalaenopsis Species Ecology, Morphology and Cultivation)  I highly recommend spending some time browing the aforementioned web site to discover more information about the Phal. species and more as the title suggests











Distribution of Phalaenopsis Species




Water and humidity are as important to a happy, thriving Phalaenopsis (Phals.) as is the appropriate level of light.  What makes Phals. more "work" than "fun" in a dry climate is maintaining appropriate amount of water and humidity.  Too little, or too much and your Phal. will give you signs that it is not happy. For example, leaf drop or all the unopened buds decorating your floor.


Water is the liquid of life, or death.


Water is the single most important aspect of orchid care. These plants grow in tropical, humid climates, where water is abundant both in the air and at the roots, and where rainstorms pass by multiple times a day. If you don’t live in the jungle and you don’t live in a humid city by the ocean… you’ve got to be very diligent about providing the right conditions to keep your plant hydrated.


Humidity is the amount of water vapour present in air.  The Phalaenopsis, like most epiphytic orchids grow best with the humidity 50% or higher. Most homes have a humidity of 30 to 40%. To create high humidity around the orchid, provide a way for water to constantly evaporate around the plants. Place gravel in a pan or saucer. Place the plant on the gravel. Keep water in the pan or saucer about to the top of the gravel. Do not allow the water to touch the bottom of the pot. This will create a micro-environment of high humidity right around the plant.  You can tell who takes this extra step and who does not, because those that do, "brag" about their blooming accomplishments at "Show and Tell" table every month.  Those that don't have a look of frustration on their face when they see others with the exact same orchid in bloom, while theirs is taking space on a window sill.


My nine Phals. are currently being grown in one of two mediums, five are currently in an inorganic, clay, semi-hydroponic pellet, and the remaining four volunteers suspended to become acclimated in hydroponics. The S/H pellets work for many orchids in my growing area (in my mini-greenhouse).  Typically, you would have Phals. in an organic medium of your liking, but the watering process should be the same or very close.


Before diving into how I water, you should do something very important.   Go look at your Phals.  Take a long look at the leaves, notice the color, the feel, their appearance, how do they look at eye level?


Healthy, thriving Phal. leaves should have the following characteristics:


  • an even, deep, dark green color.  (there are exceptions, like Phals with striated leaves).
  • a slight shine on the surface.
  • if you gently raised a leave with your finger, it should feel rigid and fall back into place maintaining it's own weight, not resting on a leaf or the medium below.




If your Phals'., leaves do not match the above description of look and feel, it is time to water (keep in mind current time, you may have to make it a priority for tomorrow).


The photo to the right, the leaves look in very good shape, with a slight sheen.


If you have not yet repotted your Phal. from the cheap plastic grow pot that it probably came in from the store,

now would be a good time.

That cheap plastic grow pot (plastic flimsy liner) is known to have killed more orchids than unintended neglect.



If you live a dry climate (under 60% humidity) like I do, then you need to pay close attention to the below water-related issues. Lack of water will likely affect your plants more drastically than someone who lives in an ‘humid orchid climate’. 



I believe in the "dunk and drown" method


Simply stated, you will be dunking the orchid in water deep enough to almost rise to the actual level of the stem but not above it.  I place my 18oz. cup in another cup, slowly add water till it reaches the top, wait a few minutes and if necessary, add more water.  It should be early enough in the day that there will be plenty of time for the Phal. to dry.


I let stand or drown for about 15 to 20 minutes.  As mentioned above, the roots absorb their maximum amount of water in the first 60-seconds, but their is nothing wrong letting it mingle in the water for another 19-minutes.  I pull out my cup with the orchid and allow to drain.  While the roots are draining, I mist the leaves, top and underneath as much as possible.  Again it is early enough in the day that time, along with a gentle breeze, will dry the orchid, and the areas where the leaves and stem form crannies where water has collected to dry.  If possible, you could try placing your orchid at a tilt to help drain water from these joints.  Water being caught their can lead to rot.  This is why it is very important with Phals. to water early enough to allow sufficient time to thoroughly dry.


On the far left is a cup of moss (representing a Phalaenopsis, inserted into another cup.  I opt to pour water slowly into the Phalaenopsis until the water reaches the top, wait for it to settle and leech into the containing cup.  I then pour more water into the Phalaenopsis until starts dripping over the edge and allow to sit for about 10 minutes.  I carefully remove the Phalaenopsis cup from the bottom cup and set to drain.


On the right is an example of a Catasetum in a 2quart liquid food container, and it easily slips into the bottom of a cut 2-liter bottle.  Again, pour water to the top, let settle, add more as needed, let stand for 15 minutes, remove and drain.


I do the same process when feeding / fertilizing.


The 15-minute rest period is a perfect time to check out the leaves, look for any new growths, note any dead or weak growths that should be removed and if applicable, check out the medium for any roots growing to the light of the sun and visible along the side of the clear plastic.


After the orchids had a chance to drain, I walk them to the mini-greenhouses on my balcony and give the leaves a heavy misting - top and bottom.  Orchids will absorb some of this moisture.  This misting also cleans any debris from the surface of the leaves and cleans them a little.  It is also a chance to observe the leaves in brighter light before placing back into the mini-greenhouses where they will wait a day or two before the process repeats itself.


Be aware that watering during the month of July is very different than watering during January.  During the winter, only water when the medium is dry or roots show signs of starting to be dehydrated (see "phases of dehydration", below).  Summer months will mean more frequency, or number of times during a week for watering.  During the winter, watering may only need to take place once or twice a week.  The individual orchid well give you clues, just need to recognize and act accordingly.


Well-hydrated Phalaenopsis have leaves that are firm and can support their own weight. Signs of under-watered leaves include: pale, leathery, or droopy leaves.


During the late spring and through the summer, the Phalaenopsis' "growth phase" will produce 1 or 2 leaves (opposite each other) at the top of the stem.

In the fall and winter, spikes may start to form for blooming buds the following spring.


Roots have four ‘phases’ of hydration:

  • When they’re dehydrated and the roots shrivel and look like ‘prune fingers’ (when your hands have been in water too long). This last phase of dehydration is a good indicator that you’re past-due for a good watering.
  • When they are dry and whitish-grey, they are in need of water.
  • When just watered, fully hydrated, and holding water they appear a dark green color.
  • When they’re happily hydrated and the roots are fat, round, and plump and in various between stages of green and white (in the pot, green - above the pot, white).



What if too much water?


There are some simple "tells" if your Phalaenopsis is getting to much water.  First, feel the surface of the medium.  If it is damp, watering can wait another day or more.  To check below the surface of the medium, use "the pencil test".  Take a sharpened pencil and insert it into the medium.  Might have to twist it like a drill till it is an inch or two below the surface.  Pull out the pencil.  If the exposed wood is dark from contact with moisture, pass on watering until tomorrow. 


A completely different an obvious sign of perhaps skipping the watering of an orchid is how heavy does the pot feel in your hand?  This requires actually handling the potted orchid.  Basically you need to compare how heavy the pot feels in your hand now, before watering, and how heavy it is after being allowed to drain from the last watering, or the day after being watered.  This does require practice to "get the feel".   If you have a heavy duty postage or kitchen scale - problem solved.  Just wait till the potted orchid needs to be watered and weigh it, someplace safe make note of the weight of the dry pot for future reference, then when you think the orchid needs watering on a future date, compare the two weights.  Keep in mind as the orchid grows the dry weight will increase but only slightly.


If it has been a week since you last watered, and you know it has because you wrote in a basic calendar that a week ago you watered your orchids, it might mean something is wrong.  Does the pot have sufficient drainage?  Is it sitting in water?  Did someone think they were being helpful and watered without you knowing?  Is your orchid's potting medium mush?


Water should only visit your orchid's roots, not take up residency.  It only takes 60 seconds for roots in contact with water to absorb the maximum amount of water they can handle.


Orchid roots are encased in a veil or sheath called velamen.  It is this spongy material that encases the actual root and retains the water.  The velamen allows the actual root to absorb it at it's own pace. When the velamen is healthy (feels spngy, green when wet, rigid, orderless), the roots are healthy, the orchid is healthy.



How do you Revive a Drowning Orchid?


Remove the orchid from the potting mix.  Rinse any and all remaining potting mix from the root area.  Set the orchid carefully in an empty pot so the orchid's roots can fully dry.


Perhaps the next day, take a very close look at the roots of the orchid.  Any black mushy stinky toots should be removed.  Hopefully there are a few good roots remaining.  I would suggest a mix of styrofoam packing peanuts and moss at the bottom of a pot, and perhaps very lightly, not packing around the roots and placing the orchid in a slightly smaller pot, stacked so that it does not shift, position somewhere where you walk by and remember it's current status, water an check frequently the remaining roots.  If those roots turn black and mushy, it might be time to add one more to your casualty list.  Moss will retain moisture, the styrofoam peanuts might capture some water but allow air to dry the remaining roots much faster.  Water is the orchid's biggest enemy at this time. Most important - identify what you did wrong with the orchid so as not repeat the same mistake.  I would also check other orchids for the same condition and fix as soon as possible.


If their is no drainage holes in the pot, find a new pot with drainage holes or make drainage holes.  If the potting mix is mush,  when you re-pot the orchid, do so in a new potting mix.  If you used moss, try changing to a bark and perlite mix.


Do not make the mistake that this will be a quick fix.  This could take a few months for he orchid to recover.  Not to add on to the bad news, but do not expect any blooms the next regular bloom season as well - the orchid will be focusing it's energy on recovering.  On the bright side, if you have a spike that has not been completely cut back, you might be rewarded with a keiki.



What if over time too little water?


Obviously, pay closer attention to your frequency and amount of watering, increase as needed.


How do you know if your Phalaenopsis is getting enough water?

One thing I’ve noticed with my plants is that when they’re well hydrated (especially the 2-3 days after I water), they almost appear to glow in the evening. This comes from a cell phenomenon where well-hydrated cells are swollen and reflect light. You’ll notice it on flowers more than you will on the leaves—you can check this for yourself. Take your cellphone, turn on the flashlight and shine it on the flower petals. As you move the light around and you’ll see sort of a giltter sparkle on the flowers. This will happen on leaves if they’re very hydrated too. This sounds silly, but to me this is the equivalence of an orchid smiling when it’s happy.


If a plant has lost too much water and the leaves have drooped or shriveled heavily then the leaf will generally not regain their original plumpness or lift (even if you resolve the hydration issue). Future leaves will grow out firm and plump, provided the plant doesn’t become heavily dehydrated again.  Damaged leaves do ot perform photosynthesis efficiently and it is this process that energy in the form of light from the sun is converted to a complex starch that actually is distributed throughout the plant and feeds the orchid.   Happy healthy roots result in thriving leaves that convert light energy to food and in return feeds the orchid giving it the capability to do what all life desires most - reproduce.  In the case of orchids that reproduction is performed by blooming flowers waiting for a pollinator.



How do you Revive a Dehydrated Orchid?

Baby steps and consistency. Don’t put it in water culture (Unless it literally gas NO ROOTS and it’s a last ditch effort). Don’t water it more often. And don’t put it in a dark area of your home… an orchid that needs to recover needs: regular wet/dry cycles, moderately-bright light (light gives energy, energy makes roots), and a consistent condition that don’t continue to stress the plant. Use a good open bark media and top-layer it with a small amount of that water-retentive sphagnum moss; then, water the plant as the roots dry—as they get longer, you can decrease the frequency of watering because they’ll reach into the bark and stay humid longer.




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.


On the left, orchid roots in very good condition.  On the right, orchid roots that have seen much better days and familiar with neglect.



Is it Okay to Cut off Aerial Roots?

It may be tempting to cut off 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 physiologically different than roots that are growing in the potting medium.





Growing Phalaenopsis Orchids

Phalaenopsis Orchid Care

Phalaenopsis: Care, Culture and Tips to Keep Your Orchid Reblooming

Phalaenopsis Species Ecology, Morphology and Cultivation

Signs your Phalaenopsis Orchid is Not Doing Well

Signs & Symptoms of a Dehydrated Phalaenopsis – Wrinkled Leaves & Roots

How to Understand Those Curious Orchid Roots 

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