Rescue Orchids: Can a Phalaenopsis Survive without Leaves?

Not all orchids without leaves are doomed to die. Have you ever been at a store and saw a poor, tortured orchid that was on sale for half-price? The temptation to take it home is enormous, since most orchids recover with a little tender loving care.

But what if this orchid has leaves that are barely attached, or leaves that you know will have to come off? Can an orchid survive without leaves?
Orchids with no Leaves
The orchids in this image all have a bacterial infection called Leaf Blight. It's possible the leaves will fall off if not treated.
Image Credits: "Bacterial leaf blight orchid caused by Erwinia sp." by Plant pests and diseases is licensed under CC PDM 1.0
To know if an orchid without leaves will survive (or at least has a slim chance to live), you have to analyze both the roots and the stem. If the stem is yellow, flaky, and no sign of green, then the leaf will have nowhere to sprout from. If the stem is healthy and green, then the roots can send enough energy to the stem to produce a healthy new leaf. If the roots are molded, rotted, black, mushy or crusted, then this orchid is half gone. Both roots and stem have to be in very good condition for a new leaf to form.

You might be asking why analyze the stem and roots? Orchids will also photosynthesize through the roots, not only through the leaves. To form this new leaf, it will have to gather nutrients from the roots and photosynthesize too—double the work. Since your orchid will eventually need to form a new leaf from the stem, if the stem is bad, there’s no hope. It will never survive in the long run. So the health of both stem and roots are extremely important.

How to Rescue an Orchid with no Leaves

At least you have good news: even with no leaves, this orchid may have energy to live another day. Once you have analyzed the stem and the roots and decided that they are healthy, you’ll need to do several things to guarantee its survival:

 1. Be Patient

Don’t analyze your orchid's growth to a normal orchid, with leaves. Total surface area in the leaf is vastly higher than roots, so the growth will be slower. But if they are buried in a dark pot and have no access to light, there’s no hope.

2. Choose the Right Pot

The roots need to be in a clear plastic pot, not potted then placed within an outer decorative vase. These roots need to have more access to sunlight than before, since they’ll be performing all the photosynthesis for your orchid. 

3. Select the Right Potting Medium

Guarantee a safe potting medium that lets higher quantity of light penetrate the media. I suggest full hydroponics or a hanging basket, where roots are fully exposed into the air and can get bright light.

Don’t keep the roots inside a well packed medium that filters the majority of the light.

Charcoal, bark, perlite, and peat moss will block the sun’s rays and the roots won’t have enough energy to produce a new leaf (sphagnum moss is okay). If you use leca when repotting, push the roots toward the sides, verifying they are as far as they be can toward the light.

Below are a few suggestions of potting medium.
They are all Affiliate Links, so when you click on them, it will show you the price.
 Orchid Bark  needs to be a larger coareser grade bark for larger plants. If your orchid is small and has tiny roots, choose a bark that is finer. I tend to use the brand Better-Gro (Affiliate Link) a lot, and the price is certainly right.
Charcoal - Provides excellent drainage and prevents build up of bacteria. I use charcoal in all my terrariums and in my potting medium. I am experimenting with a few brands, but I always come back to this one from Hoffman (Affiliate Link).
Perlite - This is a charm to add in my potting medium. It increases water absorption and also provides for a better air circulation. CZ Garden (Affiliate Link) always had good prices when I need some.
Sphagnum Moss - You'll always need more of this than you think. I finally broke down and bought a huge bag, but start out with something smaller if you'd like. This suggestion from Supper Moss (Affiliate Link)  is a 2lb bag.

 4. Fix Your Fertilizer.

You'll need to add a higher concentration of nitrogen in your fertilizer. Don’t go overboard with the nitrogen though. Keep in mind this has to be a nitrogen to potassium ratio, and that needs to be high.

If the potassium is also high, like in a balanced N-P-K ratio (30-30-30), then nothing is being achieved. If you want more information on how the N-P-K ration works in fertilizer, this article is a great place to start. It also has the various methods that are available for fertilization.
Even if you do these three things, it’s not a 100% satisfaction guarantee that the orchid will not die. To be safe, you’ll have to investigate what caused the leaves to fall off in the first place. If the principal factor of leaf drop hasn’t been solved, then no matter what you do, it won’t work.

Why Did the Leaves Fall Off my Orchid?

The four main causes that orchids lose their leaves are: stem rot, insects or pests, too much fertilizer, and exposition to wrong temperatures.

1. Stem Rot

 The leaves could have fallen off because of stem rot. Stem rot occurs from the base of the orchid up to the crown. If this is the case, the stem will be black, mushy, and wilted.

When you press the stem between your fingers, it will easily budge and squish. There’s no resistance or firmness to the orchid. If you happen to cut it open, there won’t be anything visibly green, just mush.

To treat stem rot, you’ll need to apply Hydrogen Peroxide two to three times a day. This will chemically allow more hydrogen and oxygen to enter the surface of the rotting area. Not only does the liquid turn into gas, providing a chance for the stem to dry, but it also destroys bacteria cells. Double winner.

Not to be a pessimist, but stem rot is extremely hard to treat, differently than crown rot.

What’s the difference between crown rot and stem rot? Even though it seems like the same thing, it’s not.

Crown rot occurs in the top center of the orchid, where new leaves are formed. Crown rot is very localized and occurred because water sat in the crown, due to improper watering. The water then enters the top of the crown, not having anywhere to go.

If you think back to how orchids grown in nature, their leaves are flopping down, so the bottom of the leaf is actually faced toward the sun. This position is to ensure that water runs down the leaf and doesn’t pool inside the crown.

Except, let’s be honest, that’s just plain ugly. That is why we pot them right-side up, or upside down, or however that is… That is also why we have to stake the flower spike. So, in the name of all things nice and pretty, we have literally potted the orchid upside down and expect it to be happy…
parts of the orchid
"[Central America] Guarianthe × laelioides 'Brechts' CCM/AOS (Lem.) Van den Berg, Phytotaxa 239: 67 (2015)" by sunoochi is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Anyway, stagnant water in high temperatures and high humidity is an open invitation for bacteria and fungus at the crown.

The water has nowhere to go, so it pools in the middle of the crown and slowly breaks the leaf cell structure by suffocating it. The broken, fragile plant tissue is an open door for microorganisms to penetrate the orchid. This all sounds really bad, but is actually easy to treat.
The stem, on the other hand, is the center of the orchid, where roots, leaves, flower spikes, and everything else is produced. It’s hard to diagnose what caused the water to invade the stem: a pest, insect, bacteria, salt residue, or something else… so it’s harder to treat something you don’t know the cause to. And it’s almost impossible (emphasis on the almost) that the cause of the stem rot is because of stagnant water.

The stem is the orchid’s life. Once it rots, there isn’t much hope. You can rescue an orchid with no leaves, no roots, no flower…but not one with no stem.

Tip: If you are a bit lost on what’s the stem, crown, pseudobulb, and all the other complicated terminology, there are detailed pictures of the various names in this article about orchid Anatomy and Terminology.

2. Insects or Pests

 The leaves could have fallen off because of insects and pests. There are many types of bugs that love to chew on orchids. If not treated, they can cause the leaf to yellow, turn brown, or wrinkle. In time, the leaf will fall off completely. Each insect is treated with a different treatment, so if you think that this might be a problem, you can check out this article about insects and pests.

3. Too Much Fertilizer

Too much fertilization could cause the leaves to fall off. If you are fertilizing weekly but heavily, instead of weekly weakly, then the active chemicals will cause salt-residue build up and deteriorate the nutrient flow to the leaves. If this is the problem, and you have an orchid collection, then you’ll see the same thing happening in your other orchids.

Another tip: during dormancy, orchids don’t need to be fertilized. Just as you don’t eat when you sleep, neither do orchids.

Orchid Fertilization
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4. The Temperature is Off

The temperature is wrong for your orchid. What is usually known as bud blast or even blossom blast, “leaf blast” (that is not a technical term, by the way) can occasionally occur. The leaves will drop when the weather is too cold.

Sometimes this can happen without really noticing, like moving an orchid to an open window that lets in a cool autumn draft. Other times it could be that there is a heating vent under the plant stand, and gushes of dry, hot, conditioned air sweeps across the leaves in twenty-minute intervals.

Even the transport from the nursery to your car can cause this extreme leaf wilt and drop. If you order orchids online, make sure there is no frost on the day they will be delivering, or at least that the box won’t sit out in the cold for hours.

These answers are all for cold, but don’t rule out hot temperatures, too.
In short, yes, you can revive an orchid that has no leaves. It will take extra conditions and a constant care, but if you follow these ideas, you can save this leafless orchid.

Happy Cultivating.
Signature Amanda Matthews
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4 comments on “Rescue Orchids: Can a Phalaenopsis Survive without Leaves?”

  1. Thank you for your info. Iʻve grown orchids for 25 years successfully but this past fall/winter a dozen phaels lost random leaves which would yellow, then blacken and fall off. Roots were preserved. I now suspect itʻs too much water at cold temps. Still waiting to see if the roots regrow keikis.

    1. Hi Nan,

      Wow, I'm humbled at your comment. I'm glad that I could provide some information that helped. With this last cold front that came in, I lost a few Phal's leaves too (more than I'd like to admit). I thought the room I had them in was warm enough, but I guess not. It's so discouraging at times... But, at least they grow back. 🙂


  2. My kid ripped off all the leaves on my orchid. Sadly no one ever covers this in any online blog artice. I removed all the broken twigs and now I basically have only the roots and stem left. Any chance to keep this one alive? Many thanks in advance.

    1. Hi Christopher,

      It's hard to keep an orchid alive in this situation. I wish I could tell you more, but there's really not much else I could say. It's rare that the orchid will survive long enough until it grows a new leaf that is mature enough to provide for its needs.


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By profession, I'm a theologian, author, and seminary professor, yet I  spend my free time enjoying nature hikes, building terrariums, and cultivating orchids. I also love to mountain bike on trails, dance, and play with my dog, Max.

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