Once an orchid has blossomed, displaying its beautifully exotic flowers, it will go into a dormant cycle. Some orchids have a shorter dormant cycle while others need a little longer time to recover. Orchid dormancy starts after the last flower has fallen off the flower spike and can look very different in every species. Some hardly have any signs; others look half-dead.
1) How do I know my orchid is dead?
To know if your orchid is still breathing, first research your specific orchid species. Have a knowledged-based comparison, before you judge your orchid’s fate.
Longer dormant periods will have a more drastic effect on the orchid.
After verifying that your orchid’s dormant cycle is short, yet it’s been a long time since your orchid has spruced back to life, then it might be on a dying path.
Signs that verify that the orchid is dead in shorter dormancy-orchids by:
(1) all the leaves have fallen off,
(2) roots are non-existent or decayed,
and (3) severe crown discoloration.
2) Do all the Leaves Drop During Dormancy?
Catesetums, Cycnoches, Dendrobiums (some, not all) and Lycastes all drop their leaves during dormancy. If your orchid isn’t a species that drops its leaves, except your orchid has, then your orchid is probably dead.
n the other hand, if your orchid is a species that doesn’t drop its leaves, but still doesn’t seem to be growing, it could be that it isn’t dormant, but suffering. Pests and insects bothering the growth cycle are the number one cause (after death, that is) for sudden leaf drop.
3) Why is it Important to Repot during Dormancy
Root rot may have settled in a dying orchid, leaving the orchid to suffer. After the orchid has stopped blossoming and the flowers have all fallen off, you need to repot your orchid. This is the best time to do so, before roots start growing.While you’re repotting, verify the roots carefully. Any old, mushy, brown roots need to be cut off. Look for white spots that could indicate fungus and insects. If the orchid has suffered significant damage to the root system, it might be on its way to heaven.
It’s still salvageable, so don’t fret. Just check out a repotting guide with less-absorbent potting medium to get your orchid in better conditions.
4) Is Crown Rot Normal During Dormancy?
Even though your orchid has dropped its leaves (and this behavior is normal for its species) you need to know if it’s still alive. Observing the crown is a good way to verify.
Crown rot can appear in black smudges on the stem of the orchid. This is extremely hard to cure and common during dormancy because people overwater. If it’s too severe, there might not be a way to salvage it.
Crown rot is never normal, but unfortunately, it’s common during dormancy. The orchid isn’t thirsty during dormancy and excess water leads to root rot.
The crown should always be light green, and not yellowish-green. It should also be firm to the touch, and not mushy. Dormancy can turn the crown a slighter yellow color. This only indicates that the orchid is saving minerals and nutrients for next year, and not using them.
5) Do All Orchids Respond to Dormancy the Same Way?
Each orchid species is different, but they all have a dormant cycle, even if it’s tiny. I have seen articles saying Phalaenopsis orchids don’t have dormant periods, but I disagree. It’s just smaller—much, much, smaller.
Image Credit: “[Venezuela] Cattleya percivaliana fma. aurea ‘Gabriela’ (Rchb.f.) O’Brien Gard. Chron., n.s., 20: 404 (1883)” by sunoochi is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Some orchids will just lose their flower spike, but the leaves will appear to not have changed. Others, lose all their leaves and panic strikes in the new orchid hobbyist.
Research is fundamental.
It used to be easy to know if the orchid was dormant, since all species would flower during spring, and go into dormancy during winter. With the hybridization of species, especially Phalaenopsis orchids, now bloom year-round. If you purchase blooming Phals at different times of the year, you’ll need to make a mental note of when is the right “dormancy” period for each.
Which one is going dormant and which one is dead—and why does that even matter? Orchid care changes when orchids are in dormancy. Each orchid responds differently to dormant cycles. Please, please, please…do extra research, more than what I have written in this article, on your orchid species to know how to better care for your orchid. Look for articles like this one, which teaches about Cattleya Care.
6) How Long do Orchids Live?
Another good tip to establish if your orchid died, first you need to know how long they live. In some cases, the orchid might look like it died, but is actually alive and surprisingly healthy.
Unfortunately, this is usually the time when gifted orchids find their way into the trash (Christmas gifts, Mother’s Day gifts, etc…) They also get the fame that they’re hard to care for, since they bloomed then “suddenly died.”
In their natural habitat attached to tress, orchids can live up to 100 years. In our living rooms and home offices, they may make it up to 20, but not more than that.
If you’ve just purchased and orchid at a grocery store or supermarket, then it’s probably around 3 to 4 years old and this is the 1st or 2nd time it’s been in bloom. In greenhouses and nurseries, you can find older plants. Even so, it’s very unlikely that your orchid you recently purchased is reaching the 20-year mark.
7) How do I Care for Dormant Orchids That Look Half-dead?
If your orchid came from a drier climate with two distinct seasons, a dry one and a humid one, and not a tropical rainforest, then it will most likely drop its leaves when winter approaches.
In a dormant cycle, the pseudobulb will start to shrink to about a ⅓ its normal size. All the pseudobulbs will do this, and not just one or another. If you find abnormal shrinkage, your orchid may by calling out for help.
Once you have done your research, and verified that your orchid is indeed, a dormant, leaf-shedding, pseudobulb-shrinking orchid, then your set to go. How do you care for an orchid that is dormant? Halt the watering, halt the fertilization completely, and drop the temperatures and lighting. Let’s look at each one of these separately.
1. Halt the Watering.
You’ll need to slow down on watering around mid-fall and completely halt all watering during winter. Mist the orchid roots once every four to five days, which will simulate the fog and haze of early morning in these areas.In Brazil, there’s a distinct period of dryness lasting up to 4 months, which humidity levels drop close to desert levels. Schools were often closed due to low humidity.
You might be wondering why I mention Brazil all the time…
Check out the about page to find out why.
I’d grow my dormant orchids by misting them in the morning, but never watering. I’d water the others frequently, to avoid dying—especially the mounted ones.
Dormant orchids actually prefer this weather to recuperate and store energy for the next year’s growth. So, don’t be scared that just a misting will provide for their needs, because it will. You won’t dehydrate them.
On the other hand, if you continue to water the same way you’ve always watered your orchid, then you’ll be inducing severe root rot. The water won’t be absorbed, sitting in puddles of bacteria-inviting water.
2. Halt the Fertilization
When an orchid goes dormant, it will need less water and less fertilizer. Some species prefer to suspend water after all their leaves have fallen off, enjoying the dry spell for up to a month. It is extremely easy to overwater an orchid during the dormant stages, encouraging root and crown rot.
Another viewpoint on fertilization is that without water, you don’t need to be fertilizing. In a growth-cycle, before applying fertilizer, you first need to water your plant. Always fertilize after the roots have absorbed the unfertilized water that they need.
Since you aren’t watering during dormancy, the roots would be absorbing pure fertilizer. This will only cause severe root burn. Your orchid won’t respond to fertilizer anyway, so save your money and halt the fertilization until you observe new root growth.
3. Drop the Temperatures
You’ll need to lower the temperature a few degrees, if possible. Cool temperature induce dormancy. Even if your orchid has a one-week dormancy period, like Phalaenopsis, these cooler temperatures induce a new flower spike.
So, either way—long dormancy or short dormancy—you win.
8) How do I Induce a Dormancy Period?
In nature, the orchid will go dormant after it has had time to blossom and sensing the changes in nature. As explained before, dormancy coincides with a drop in temperature, (not much, but a few degrees), shorter days (shorter periods exposed to sunlight) and less rain.
If you’re growing orchids indoors, like I am, you’ll need to induce a dormancy period that simulates winter. Dendrobiums will shed all their leaves and desperately need of the change of temperatures (not all—check your species). Phalaenopsis will enjoy the crisper nights and less hours of full sunlight.
If you keep on watering, providing same temperature, and same sunlight, your orchid may not bloom. Actually, maintaining the same temperature is the number one reason most people’s orchids don’t rebloom. You need to induce the orchid to go dormant after blooming by regulating—or tweaking, as the newer generation calls it—some essential factors.
To recreate this indoors, you’ll need to keep the artificial lights on only 12-14 hours instead of 14-16 hours a day. Less light simulates the shorter days in winter.
You can halt all fertilization, since the watering will be reduced to misting. These orchids are used to dry spells.
Turn your thermostat off in during winter nights, (if this is possible in your area) so that during the winter months, the temperature will drop at night.
In the arid desert-like areas, humidity at night is still high and it can get cold. If possible, keep lower temperatures during the day, never lower than 65ºF (again, check your specific species). But definitely drop them at night by 10ºF.
Maintain high humidity, and keep the fans on.
Hopefully, your orchid is just taking a long nap and not knocking on heaven’s gates. After reading this article, you should be able know if your orchid is dead or dormant, how to induce a dormancy period, and what to expect during dormancy.
Don’t Stop Learning!
If you want to be included in more information and get a 14-page fertilization guide, please sign up for my newsletter. I don’t spam, but send emails out bi-monthly with some curious topics of interest. If you want more information, click here to go to a specific page on this website where I explain it more in detail.
Also, if you are looking for an orchid journal to keep your notes specifically about orchid care, check out my 2 solutions for that on this page. If note-keeping isn’t your thing, then there is a free excel spreadsheet that you can download. Click here for more information on how to do that.
If you subscribe to my newsletter, I will send you a 14-page guide on the main tips of orchid fertilizer. It is downloadable and you can print it out on your computer. I designed the guide to double up as a coloring book, just to make it fun.
If it was helpful, please send me a comment in the section below. What is your preferred method of watering during dormancy and how do you know if your orchid had hit the dust?