Whether your plant is a very popular Phalaenopsis, an elegant Cattleya or a rare (and quite unusual) Thelymitra jonesii, the sight of limp and wrinkled leaves is a scary one. If you’ve been noticing this happening to your orchids recently, don’t worry! You aren’t alone.
In fact, if your orchid has drooping, limp leaves, it is trying to tell you something…
When an orchid has dropping and limp leaves, it is a sign of stress. This may be caused by overwatering, underwatering, excessive cold or heat, old or unsuitable growing medium or even rot. In each case, there is a diagnosis you need to learn to make and a solution.
There are few possible reasons that can cause your orchid’s leaves to become limp and wrinkled, so read on below for some helpful tips on how to read the symptoms, diagnose the problem and, of course, how to revive your orchids back to their former glory.
Understanding orchid language
Look at an orchid; what feeling does it communicate? Most people will come out with words like “peace”, “stillness”, “serenity” etc… Well, if that what your plant is conveying to you, there are two things you have achieved:
Orchids are very gentle plants; there is no doubt about it; their presence alone can bring peace to a whole room, even a whole house. However, we Humans are very ungrateful beings; we ignore those that don’t want to disturb us…
Like a teacher often ignores the quiet student who works well but asks for little, so do we with our plants.
When an orchid is distressed, you will very often only notice small signs; a flower that dries up before its time, a shriveling root or a drooping leaf.
Orchids never shout; they always whisper to us.
So, look for any small sign and trust your feelings; if there is even a small touch of still peaceful sadness, then check the leaves; it may well be that your orchid needs your help.
Reasons why orchid leaves droop and become limp
Orchids are very sensitive plants, but they also have a very slow metabolism. This means that they grow and change extremely slowly…
If you love your orchid, therefore, you need to check it regularly and act at the first sign of stress, which, in most cases, will result in the softening of the leaf tissue and then drooping of the leaves themselves.
There can be a few reasons for why your orchid’s leaves are withered and droopy:
Orchid leaves limp: is it overwatering?
The most common reason for limp or wrinkled leaves on your orchid is overwatering. Doesn’t it sound strange that when a plant has been overwatered its leaves droop? Why! Shouldn’t they be filled with water, so become very turgid and stiff instead?
Well, the problem starts at root level; too much water around the roots stops the plant from absorbing oxygen and moisture. This, in turn, results in orchid’s leaves drooping.
To spot any signs, first look at the leaves:
When overwatering is excessive, the tissue of the orchid’s leaves may start deteriorating, and the leaves may then start changing color, losing green and turning yellow.
The final effect is similar to what we get with underwatering, but we can spot the difference looking at the roots.
To do this, first you will have to take the plant out of the pot and remove the growing medium, then, look for any of these signs:
Now, if you do not see any serious rotting, only some softening and discoloring of the roots, and you have no issues with bad growing medium, it will very likely be simple overwatering. Otherwise, you will find the answers later on in the article.
How Can You Solve This?
What Happens If Your Orchid Is In Bloom Though?
It all depends on how badly your plant has been affected. You do not have to cut the stem, unless you notice that the orchid is struggling.
If the flowers are wilting and especially if the stem has started yellowing and losing strength, you may wish to “be cruel to be kind”.
Sad though it may be, you may cut the stem in order to help the plant redirect its energy to the leaves.
Again, it is all a matter of “reading the signals your orchid is giving you.”
Cutting the stem needs to be done with sharp and sterile scissors. The cut needs to be neat and at an angle possibly. But where do you need to cut?
The choice is hard; on balance, if for example you have a Phalaenopsis, which can be encouraged to produce a lateral inflorescence by cutting a cm (½ inch) above a node with bud, I would suggest to do so; give your plant a chance to blossom again.
But keep an eye on it; if you see that your orchid chooses to let the stem go, and it starts drying, then cut it at the base.
You will recognize the bud even if you can’t see it; in plants like Phalaenopsis, it hides under a small triangular leaf at the node. If that leaf is healthy and not dry, the bud has a chance to grow.
Signs Of Recovery From Overwatering: What Should You Expect?
Recovery from overwatering is takes time all plants, but particularly so with orchids, whose metabolism, as we said, is very slow indeed.
Thus, don’t expect your flowering friend to pick up immediately. You will, however, notice an improvement over time.
The leaves will become more firm and gain some of their shiny quality back. They may not (and probably will not) recover completely.
Overwatering And Rot
Now, overwatering and rot are two related problems; the former often causes the latter. So far, we have looked at how to treat an orchid that has been overwatered but has no serious rot.
If your plant has root, crown or leaf rot, things are much more serious, but we will come to that at the end of this article, after you have learned how to manage all the other problems, as it is arguably the most serious of all.
Limp Leaves Signal Is It Underwatering
The reason that orchid leaves drop, become soft and lethargic, wrinkled, is that there is no full access of water to these leaves, and this happens either due to drying out of the substrate, or due to diseases of the root system, when affected disease, the roots can not carry moisture to the leaves.
If a plant, including an orchid, does not receive enough water, to start with it will not be able to absorb enough nutrients, as water is necessary for the absorption and transportation in the phloem and xylem (the two vascular systems of plants).
Of course, the cells also become dry, losing cell turgor. When a plant cell has water in it, it fills and pushes the plasma inside the cell against the cell wall.
If water is scarce, the cell “empties”. This has many consequences, from making it he plant lose turgidity and eventually shape and, in ten long run, even stopping the cells from absorbing substances through the wall and ultimately die.
Orchids should not be watered too often. On average about once a week (depending on heat, air humidity, season, life phase etc.) But the fact is that they are so peaceful, quiet and undemanding that far too often we forget about them.
Then again, we have the usual problem… Remember? Orchids whisper. They will not show signs of thirst fast and clearly. It will take time before the leaves start drooping.
So, look out for any signs of wrinkling, of loss of color and loss of shine as soon as possible and, to avoid this, water your orchids regularly. A little tip? Choose a day of the week when you water them and try to stick to it.
The effects of underwatering are similar to those of overwatering, but they may be slower and on top of that, if it is severe, you may notice:
But what do you need to do? There are two cases: one if it is light, one if it is serious.
To start with, try to check two things:
If you see only tiny parts of roots that are dry and the plant is only showing a few signs of underwatering, then, simply:
How about, though. If you notice lots of dry roots and your plant is giving serious signs of thirst? Oddly enough, the process is not that dissimilar to what is necessary for overwatering, but with some key differences.
If it is in bloom, follow the same guidelines as with overwatering. The chances are, though, that either it will have already shown that it cannot afford the energy to blossom (dry buds, dry flowers and dry stem), or that it will have more chances to recover than from overwatering, and grow a new lateral stem.
Signs Of Recovery From Underwatering: What Should You Expect?
Once again, you will have to wait for a while before you see your orchid recover, but by no means as long as with overwatering.
You will see the plant regain its beautiful shine, then plump up and, unless the leaves already had permanent damage, you may see a full recovery.
Orchid Leaves Limp: Is It Excessive Heat?
Heat causes perspiration through the stomata (the pores) of the plant. When this is excessive, the plant may not be able to replenish the water it perspires. Of course, this means that the cells become dry, with loss of turgor and consequent loss of turgidity, this makes the leaves droop.
The effects of heat are similar to those of underwatering; however there are two telltale signs that may differentiate the causes:
Of course, you must keep in mind the temperature your orchid is exposed to. When the daytime temperature gets in the 80s, it starts becoming hot for an orchid on average, and when it passes 90oF (32oC) it will certainly start suffering.
At night, anything above 70oF (21oC) will be too much, but you should start considering 65oF (18oC) as very warm for an orchid at nighttime.
Overheating will very likely result in burns, like edge burn or leaf burn. These are easy to identify, they literally look like someone has scorched the leaf with a flame.
What Should You Do If Your Orchid Has Suffered From Overheating?
Quite simply follow the same guidelines as with underwatering but add two extra points:
With excessive heat it is unlikely that you will save the blossom, it will very likely have wilted already, but again, use your discretion here.
Orchid Leaves Limp: Is It Cold?
Cold has a negative effect on the cells of the orchid’s leaves because it causes cell damage. Some cells within the leaf may die, others become weak or sick.
Amazingly, orchids do have a great resilience to cold. This does not mean that you should not look after them, but they can withstand even rigid temperatures and revive.
They are, in fact, known to withstand even short spells at freezing temperatures, 32oF or a very round 0oC.
This does not mean, however, that you should expose them to any temperature below 50oF (or 10oC), as under these temperatures, you can be almost sure that your plant will suffer.
What Does Cold Damage Look Like?
What Can You Do In This Case?
If here you think you should follow similar guidelines as before you are totally mistaken, in fact:
Not all orchids though like the same temperature. Orchids are, in fact, generally divided into three groups:
Recovery from cold is slow, and the leaves may remain always a bit dry looking and lacking that beautiful shine that distinguishes orchids.
Orchid Leaves Limp: Is It The Growing Medium?
A lesser talked about cause of orchid leaves drooping is the quality of the growing medium. After a while, it deteriorates, the fibers lose their texture; when this happens it cannot hold nutrients, air and humidity as well. The leaves, lacking these, will tend to droop.
Fortunately, it is also very easy to spot it and remedy it.
You may also want to give it some cold tea soak watering if the plant looks a rather unwell; a poor growing medium may have dampened the plant’s will to grow roots…
This is usually an easy to spot problem (as long as you know it exists) and recovery can be full, especially if caught in time.
Orchid Leaves Limp: Is It Rot?
Rot is a very serious ailment for plants; it is comparable to gangrene for animals, even if more easily treatable, because plants are “cuttable”.
Rot can cause a general weakening of the plant, with consequences on its metabolic functions and leaf drooping as well.
However, before you assess if it is rot, you need to look for other symptoms:
If your plant’s limp leaves are accompanied by even small symptoms like these, then it may likely be rot.
There are three main areas that can be hit by rot; very often this happens in all three areas, or at least, people tend to find out when more than one area is affected:
You need to take rot seriously, to prevent it, avoid excessive humidity, check that water does not stagnate in the crown and absolutely do not leave water in the saucer. Make sure that the plant is in a well ventilated place.
Another way of preventing it is to sprinkle the crown and leaves with cinnamon powder. Rot is caused by bacteria, and cinnamon is a natural antibacterial.
However, if it has already set in…
Now, I am not a lover of using hydrogen peroxide and maybe you are neither. In fact, I have advised against it in other cases.
But here, not only there does not seem (yet) to be a fully natural and efficient solution…
We are not actually spraying the H2O2 on the ground. It will dissolve into the air and it will not affect the growing environment of your plant.
Still, once you have treated your plant, make sure you do not overwater it, you do not leave water in the saucer and you find it a well ventilated place.
A final green tip
Clearly orchids are very special plants indeed… They are slow and peaceful, but this also means that sometimes, when we understand their distress signals, it may be a bit late…
So, always keep an eye on the leaves of your orchid. They should look healthy, glossy and turgid. Do touch them gently every now and then, to see if they are losing texture.
In case, do check what the cause of the problem is: overwatering, underwatering, too much heat or cold, bad growing medium or (hopefully not) rot. Once you have found the reason, you will also know how to cure your plant.
But let me close with a final tip… Orchids love green tea… It is rich in vitamins and helps their immune system.
So, after you have savoy red your favorite herb tea, just put the tea bag on top of the growing medium and just leave it there.
Your orchid will absorb the nutrients and vitamins and become stronger and happier… Only avoid very acidic ones.
Do you want to know how I found this out? Many years ago, in a street in South London, I found an orchid someone had thrown away, a Phalaenopsis…
It was February and it has suffered from the cold. I took her (let me use a personification) home and looked after her, but also put green tea bags on top of the pine barks…
In two weeks, it grew stems and soon after it was in full bloom!
Updated on by Amber Noyes
Amber Noyes born and raised in a suburb Nebraska town, San Mateo. She holds a master’s degree in horticulture from University of California as well as an BS in Biology City College of San Francisco. With experience working on an organic farm, water conservation research, farmers markets, and potted plants she understands what makes plants thrive and how can we better understand the connection between microclimate and plant health. When she’s not on the land, Amber loves informing people of new ideas/things related to gardening, especially Indoor gardening, houseplants and Growing plants in a small space.