Orchid Leaves Limp

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…

If you notice wrinkly and limp leaves leaves on your orchid, 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

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:

  • You have established an emotional contact with your plant.
  • You have started to understand how they speak.

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 are Your orchid’s leaves wrinkled?

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:

  • Overwatering; this is, unfortunately, the biggest cause of death for orchids grown as houseplants; so, do keep an eye out for any signs.
  • Underwatering, wilting orchid’s leaves are an expression of extreme dehydration. Limp, droopy and withered leaves on orchid’s mean the soil has been dry as a bone for quite some time. Orchid is a tropical plant. For its healthy growth, warmth and sufficient soil moisture are necessary.
  • Excessive heat; these plants like warm temperatures, but when it gets too hot, they will let you know with their leaves.
  • Cold; now, when it comes to cold, the leaf dropping is often one of the many signs, we will see how to recognize them, but be very careful, these plants can literally die of cold.
  • Wrong growing medium; if it is wrong (too acidic, for example) or even old and it needs changing, it can cause your orchid’s leaves to lose turgidity.
  • Root, crown and leaf rot; these are very serious problems; they cause many symptoms, including limp leaves. These ailments often come from overwatering, so, the first step is to be careful with it.

Wrinkly Orchid’s leaves limp: is it overwatering?

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:

  • They will lose turgidity and become flaccid.
  • They will develop wrinkles on the leaves.
  • They will also lose shine.
  • They may curl sideways as well as droop lengthways.

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:

  • The roots are rotting, turning yellow, brown, losing textures do shape.
  • Check under the crown of the plant, which is where new leaves are born, the very base in the center of the roots, if there is a root ball. This is a “pebble” or ball of moss or other growing medium attached to the plant.
  • Check if there is an old stem under the crown. You will notice it, because it is a cut stem, not a root, straight and directly under the crown and it will be along the axis of the orchid. In this case, it means your orchid was obtained by cutting an older and longer one.
  • Check that the growing medium is not soft, soggy or friable.

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?

  • Clean the roots from all growing medium. Be careful not to ruin the roots.
  • Oddly enough, you can water the roots at this stage; this will make it easier for you to recognize healthy and unhealthy roots.
  • Healthy roots will turn bight and glossy green.
  • Unhealthy roots will be yellow or even brown.
  • Take a sharp blade (a pruning or grafting knife would be ideal) and (remember!) disinfect it! Spray some alcohol on a clean tissue or cloth and wipe the blade. Orchids can be easily infected by blades that carry pathogens.
  • Cut all the sick roots. Do it with a neat and clean cut. Correct any cuts that don’t come out well.
  • Remove the root ball. This often causes lots of problems with overwatering, and can even lead to rot.
  • If the old stem has any signs of rotting, cut it and sprinkle some organic sulphur powder on it. This will stop any infection from spreading. If it is strong, woody and hard, then leave it; it means it has healed well.
  • Allow the roots to dry. If out of the pot, this will not take days, but a couple of hours or even minutes, depending on the climate.
  • Now, prepare new growing medium.
  • When the roots have dried, repot the orchid.
  • Do not water immediately; wait for a few days.

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?

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

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:

  • Dry patches or edges on the leaves.
  • Browning of the leaves, sometimes in vein like formations, or in patches.
  • Yellowing, starting at the tips. This is because the plant will start withdrawing water and energy from the very ends of the leaves.
  • Above all, though, look for any sign of dry tissue.

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 can see any dry roots. With epiphytes it is usually easy, as they grow in transparent pots or in any case, many roots will be visible on the air. Check if there are parts that are light brown-grey and even dry and look shriveled and “empty”.
  • Check if the growing medium is dry.

If you see only tiny parts of roots that are dry and the plant is only showing a few signs of underwatering, then, simply:

  • Soak water your plant for 20 minutes in room temperature dechlorinated water. Even better if you use rain water and to dechlorinate it, just leave it in a bowl for half an hour before using it.
  • Of course, drain the pot well before putting it back in the saucer.
  • In case you want to give some extra air humidity to your plant, do not put water in the saucer. Orchids do not like to have their roots in direct contact with pools of water; they may rot. Instead, put a larger saucer under the pot’s saucer and fill this second one.

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.

  • Take the plant out of the pot.
  • Wet the roots.
  • Remove all growing medium. Here, again check if it is old or degraded and change in case.
  • Again check if there is a root ball and a cut stem and check their health. Do cut and sterilize with organic Sulphur powder if necessary.
  • Now, take a tea bag of normal black tea.
  • Prepare a bowl with room temperature dechlorinated water for soak watering.
  • Put the tea bag in the bowl and wait for 5 minutes. The water will turn into a light tea, and what you want is the tannin. It will “wake up your plant’ and even stimulate root growth. When orchids are dry for long, they need a little encouragement with their roots.
  • Soak water the orchid for 15 minutes.
  • Drain the pot well before putting it back on the saucer.
  • Again you can use the two saucer trick to provide extra air humidity if you wish.

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?

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?

Orchid Leaves Limp

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:

  • Make absolutely sure that the water is not cold. This is true for all watering routines, but in this case you may end up giving such a shock to your plant that it may not even recover.
  • Move the plant somewhere cooler. Even here, avoid shocks. Don’t move it somewhere cold, but with less sunlight and a few degrees cooler. Keep it safely under 80oF (26-27oC) during the day and just below 65oF (18oC) at night. You may move it somewhere even slightly cooler once it has acclimatized to these temperatures if you see fit.

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?

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?

  • The leaves will droop and lose texture.
  • The leaves will lose shine.
  • The leaves will also lose color; they will at first, tend to go towards a light green shade. If they start turning yellow or brown, then the problem is very serious indeed.
  • A clear sign of cold damage is the presence of lacerations in the leaf and or yellow patches that turn brown in the middle.
  • You may see wrinkling (often fine) on the leaves.

What Can You Do In This Case?

  • Take the plant out of the pot.
  • Inspect the roots; look out for any sign of damage. Yellowing, rotting or drying of the roots, as well as any wrong coloring mean that they are not healthy.
  • With the usual sharp and sterile blade, cut all the ruined roots.
  • To prevent any spreading of possible rot, sprinkle some organic sulphur powder on the wounds.

If here you think you should follow similar guidelines as before you are totally mistaken, in fact:

  • Now, repot your plant in dry growing medium. Dry, not wet.
  • Do not by any means water it! If you water your orchid at this stage, you can cause even more damage. Your exotic friend needs time to rest and dry up a bit.
  • Do not put your orchid in a sunny place. At this stage, they want to stay in a shaded and dry place, not too hot, nor cold. You must at all costs avoid shocks to your plant, so, don’t think you can cure cold with heat nor with humidity.
  • Finally, wait till you see new growth before watering your plant.

Not all orchids though like the same temperature. Orchids are, in fact, generally divided into three groups:

  • Warm growing orchids: they like temperatures between 70 and 80oF (20 to 30oC) during the day and a minimum of 65oF (18oC) at night. These are species like Phalaenopsis, Cattleya, Vanda, Brassavola, Encyclia cordigera, and some species from the Dendrobium genus (ambioniese, dichaeodes, fytchianum, goldschmidtianum and kingianum).
  • Intermediate growers; they like slightly cooler temperatures, between 65 and 75oF (or 18 to 24oC). These include Paphiopedilum, Oncidium, some from the Cattleya genus.
  • Cool growing orchids; these plants like temperatures between 60 and 70oF (from 16 to 21oC) during the hot or summer season, and never below 50oF (or 10oC) in winter. In this group, you will find Cymbidium, Odontoglossum, Lepanthes, Porroglossum, Dracula, Masdevallia, Pleurothallis lynniana and also some species from the Dendrobium genus.

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?

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.

  • Just pick a few bark chips, check that they are still intact and don’t break easily.
  • If they do, just repot your plant and use a new growing medium.

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?

Orchid leaves limp: is it underwatering?

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:

  • Brown and moist patches or areas.
  • Yellowing or loss of color around the browning.
  • Unhealthy yellowing starting at the base of the leaves.
  • Yellowing and browning of roots.
  • Lesions on the leaves (but also on the roots); these will first be moist, then they may dry as well.

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:

  • Leaf rot; which is, of course, when one or more leaves are rotting.
  • Root rot; this is very often where the problem starts; keep an eye on the roots of your orchid to avoid rot… They don’t mind being taken out of the pot as long as you do it gently and put them back promptly.
  • Crown rot; if the rot has reached the crown, where new leaves grow, then it is usually pretty advanced and serious. This, being a very important part of your plant, is also full of vitality; once this part is affected, the very life of your orchid is at risk.

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…

  • Take the plant out of the pot.
  • Gently remove all the growing medium.
  • Start checking the roots. Apart from looking at any color change, press them with your fingers lightly; if they are like paper, then they are dead. If they are firm, they are still viable.
  • Take a sharp and sterile blade and remove all the rotting roots. Do not cut the viable ones, even if they have changed color. Your plant will need a lot of energy to recover.
  • Then, move to the leaves. Check each leaf and cut the rotting part. If a whole leaf is rotting, try pulling it off gently, but do not be afraid to eliminate the whole leaf. Any rotting tissue you leave on your plant can spread the pathogens to other parts of the plant.
  • Move to the crown; if you notice any rotting, then…
  • This is serious but you can still make it. Put 3% hydrogen peroxide in a spray bottle. Make sure it is not more than 3%.
  • Spray the hydrogen peroxide in and onto the crown.
  • You will notice some sizzling. Do not worry, this is perfectly normal. It is not damaging your plant, just killing the bacteria that cause the rot.
  • Take a tissue and spray hydrogen peroxide on it. Wearing gloves, use the tissue to clean inside the crown, very gently.
  • Repeat this every two to three days until the sizzling stops.
  • Now, take some cinnamon powder and put it in the crown of the orchid. Just leave it there.
  • Prepare a pot new growing medium. This has to be new, as the old one may have been infected by the bacteria that cause the rot.
  • Repot your plant.

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!

Amber Noyes

Written By

Amber Noyes

Amber Noyes was born and raised in a suburban California town, San Mateo. She holds a master’s degree in horticulture from the University of California as well as a BS in Biology from the University of San Francisco. With experience working on an organic farm, water conservation research, farmers’ markets, and plant nursery, she understands what makes plants thrive and how we can 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 organic gardening, houseplants, and growing plants in a small space.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar photo Ana Carvajal Casanova says:

    very interesting. I am very happy to have found this page. I have a lot of orchids and I love them but I don’t know how to take good care of them. In this text about orchids I have learned a lot and I will immediately put into practice all the indications. Thank you..