Growing Orchids in Water

March 16, 2016
Phal In Water-11

Let it swim, let it swim, let it swim.

I started growing orchids, particularly phalaenopsis orchids, in water about a year ago after seeing the awesome root tips that grew in water on Sam Som’s youtube channel (Orchids & Puppies). Not all adapted well to this method, but overall, I’d say it is an amazing way to grow orchids, especially if you love being able to see all the lush, green, sexy root nubs like me.  Plus, without media, you don’t have to worry about having creepy crawlies hiding in the media and eating those tender roots. This method is called Water Culture.

So what is water culture? Basically it means flopping your orchid into a vase of water with nothing on the roots. Nothing. No bark chips. No moss. Nada. Butt naked! You can do semi water culture, meaning soaking the roots for a couple of days a week then letting them dry for a few days. Or you can do full water culture, that is, letting the roots soak in some water all the time. Easy enough, right?

Some things you should keep in mind before deciding to strip your orchid naked:

Strip it well: Remove all old media and dead tissues from the root mass before putting your plant in water to avoid bacteria build up. That means picking out bark chips, sphagnum moss (without breaking the roots), and cutting away dead, rotten roots.

Adapt the watering schedule to your environment: A lot of people follow an easy 2 - 5 schedule, meaning soaking for 2 days and drying for 5 days. However, if you live somewhere hot and dry, you might need to soak your orchid more often to give it adequate moisture. Likewise, reduce watering if your environment is too cold and humid.

I use tap water and my orchids do just fine. I’ve heard people use rain or distilled water because their tap water is too hard (containing too much calcium). Hard water may burn roots. Just FYI.

It may get worse before it gets better: Some plants, especially those packed in wet sphagnum moss and whose roots were broken during the unpotting process, may continue to lose roots for a while before new ones pop up. You have to be patient. It may take a few weeks or a few months before you see results. And occasionally it may not work at all, in which case, please don’t be discouraged. You just need to try again.

I find that water culture works best when I try to rescue sick orchids with few or no roots left. With this method, not only can I control the amount of moisture that my sick orchid receives, but I can also properly air out the roots, hence avoiding potential root rot.

Now that you’ve read all that, I’ll take you through the process of transferring an orchid to water culture. You should definitely check out Sam’s video of how she transfer hers.

Transferring your orchid to Water Culture

Phal In Water-7

Here’s an example of what you typically find when unpotting your orchid: a lot of sphagnum moss packed into a flimsy plastic pot. While this media may be good in a nursery and is easy to transport, it is often the main cause of root rots, and death, for orchids. The moss retains so much water and is so tightly packed that it doesn’t allow the roots to breath.

Phal In Water-4

You will need some sharp shears, a pair of tweezers, rubbing alcohol to disinfect your tools, some hydrogen peroxide 3% (not pictured here) to clean the roots, some ground cinnamon to treat rots (which I did not need to use in this case), and a pair of gloves to protect your freshly manicured hands from chipping :) It is always a good idea to disinfect your tools with alcohol to avoid accidental transfer of virus from one plant to another. 

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Gently tease out and remove the moss. For those hard to reach places near the base of the plant, a pair of tweezers might come in handy.

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Cut away any dead or rotten roots. If you are not sure, try gently squeezing the roots. If they are firm and green, they are healthy. If they are hollow, dry, or mushy, they are rotten. See the brown section on this root? It was mushy, so I cut just above that brown area. 

Orchid101 Dead Roots 2

Another example of dead roots. In this case they are the dark roots that look completely shriveled. Go ahead and remove the yellow leaves too. 

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Once all of the media and dead tissues are removed, rinse the roots to clean, being careful to avoid getting water in between the leaves. I usually spray the entire root mass with hydrogen peroxide to kill potential critters hiding in there. If you do get water into the crown area, dry it off with a paper towel, and dry the whole plant upside down for a few hours to be sure. 

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Find a suitable vase with a wide opening, add a few inches of water and let your orchid swim. The water level should be at least 2 inches below the lowest leaf. A wide opening helps ensure that the roots can air out, avoiding mold build up. You can also provide ventilation by cracking open a window or putting a small fan near the orchid. Monitor the water; if it starts getting murky, there’s probably something rotting  and you’ll need to dump out the water, clean the vase, and cut any rotting roots. 

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Phal In Water-12 Here’s an example of a happy rescue orchid grown in water. This poor sucker had almost no roots when I received it in September last year. Look at it now! 

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Remember the poor sucker with the brown dead roots and two yellow leaves above? Here it is now swimming in a cup (the small rocks are to stabilize the cup), and it is growing new roots and a spike too.