Your orchid care is going wonderful, with beautiful blossoms and the right lighting, humidity, and fertilizer. All of the sudden, your orchid stops growing. The orchid’s leaves stall and halt their growth altogether.
Orchid leaves stop growing because of nine reasons:
1) change in fertilization percentages,
2) lack of stored energy,
3) phosphorus or nitrogen deficiency,
5) sudden change in environment,
6) development of a flower spike,
7) too bright of light,
8) decomposed potting medium, and
9) caregiver anxiety.
There are simple ways to overcome each one of these problems. You need to observe your orchid for a while, taking note of what has changed in your growing conditions. Let’s dive into each one.
The best way to diagnose an orchid problem is to compare how this orchid would grow in nature, in its natural habitat. Then start listing reasons one by one of how your environment is different.
1. Changing Fertilization Halts Leaf Growth
If you have just purchased an orchid or received it as a gift, the way that the previous owner fertilized it is unknown. What did they use? How much? How often? No matter what, you will be fertilizing differently.
Just like a sudden change in diet, from a meat-loving to vegan, we feel a difference in how what we eat. The orchid will too. Especially when the orchid receives only three elements, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These are the three NPK ratio elements that are used in most fertilizers. If you change the percentages of the elements, the orchid will react by hindering or halting leaf growth.
It usually hinders the entire growth, but root growth is harder to see.
If this is the case, that you’ve just received the orchid, then don’t worry. Your orchid will adapt well to the nutrients that it is receiving and in time the leaf will continue to grow again.
Don’t stop fertilizing all together, because the lack of fertilization will also hinder orchid leaf growth, which brings me to my next point.
2. Lack of Stored Energy Cripples Leaf Growth
Some orchids have pseudobulbs, like Cattleyas, Oncidiums, Epidendrums, Catasetums, and many others. These pseudobulbs function as the storage department for the orchid, where it can withstand harsher climatic conditions, like period s of lack of water or light.
When these pseudobulbs have not received enough nutrients in the previous year, they may have problems developing new leaves. In most cases, orchids with pseudobulbs will produce new leaves, but they will be smaller than the previous years.
If you have a sympodial orchid, that doesn’t have a pseudobulb, like Phalaenopsis and Vandas, then the probability of having a halting leaf is larger. The orchid doesn’t have an extra storage unit to depend upon, so all the nutrients need to be fresh and daily (at least in nature that’s how they feed). At home, the orchid will depend on weekly fertilization.
If the root system has totally decayed due to root rot, then the orchid cannot absorb the appropriate nutrients. There is not enough energy to produce a vibrant, healthy leaf.
Reminder: Healthy Phalaenopsis orchid leaves are usually a lighter green like a sick crocodile color, or a juicy pear, or a pale lettuce colored green, and not bright parakeet or macaw green. That deep, dark broccoli or emerald green is not a good sign. Aim for the lighter tones of green. Too dark green and your orchid is not receiving enough light.
To fix this specific topic, you’ll need to upgrade your fertilization. In the free downloadable guide about fertilization, you can get tips and hints on how to fertilize orchids correctly.
3. Phosphorus or Nitrogen Deficiency Discontinues Growth
Sometimes you are fertilizing correctly, but the fertilizer you are using is not indicated for the type of phase that the orchid is in. Phosphorous focuses on healthy flower spikes, orchid seeds, and the overall pollination process of your orchid.
(LOL… My computer wants to change the word pollination to politicization… If only my auto correct actually worked. Anyway…)
Nitrogen will focus on healthy leaves and roots. If there is a lack of these 2 elements in your fertilizer, then your orchid leaf might not be doing as well as you’d like.
A nutrient deficiency sign is a leaf that has discontinued to grow. As for the nitrogen deficiency, if you remember back to chemistry class (ugh! I know… bear with me) nitrogen is a gas. It is found in the atmosphere that we breathe and also needs to be in the potting medium, too. (Source)
If your orchid shows signs of nitrogen deficiency, the leaves will also yellow. Not just the tips of the leaf, the entire leaf will turn bright yellow.
Many bacteria can be responsible for this yellowing since they consume the nitrogen that would have been used by the roots. A bright yellow leaf along with the stunted growth of a newer orchid leaf mean that there is not enough air in your potting medium, along with not enough nitrogen.
The phosphorous deficiency could be caused by the wrong pH of your water. If you have a Phalaenopsis, make sure the water you use is around 5.5 or 6.5. My tap water is extremely high, so I have resolved to use distilled water. If you can use rainwater also.
To fix these deficiencies, use a fertilizer that has a higher N and P in the NPK ratio. These are the first three numbers found on the fertilizer bottle/bag.
4. Dehydration Hinders Orchid Leaf Growth
If you know for sure that your fertilization methods haven’t changed, then let’s move on to the other problems that could hind orchid leaf growth. Is your leaf wilted or looking a bit leathery, too? If so, it might be because of a lack of water.
Over-watering is a problem but so is under-watering. The frequency of how often you water matters just as much as how much water you use. If your orchid has been used to watering more and suddenly the quantity drops, then the leaves will stop growing. If this continues over time, the leaves become withered and leathery-looking, with deep grooves in them.
Upgrade your watering by either cutting out a few days in between watering and let the water run through your orchid potting medium a little more than normal. If you soaked your pot for 5 minutes, try 7 or 10.
Orchid leaves usually do not pop back into place fast, and the damage might be permanent for that specific leaf. The good news is that in time, that leaf will fall off and a new one will take its place. It might take a few years, but Phalaenopsis orchid leaves do not last forever.
5. Sudden Change in Environment Ceases Leaf Growth
If you turned on the air conditioner or central heating unit, this sudden change in temperature stuns the orchid temporarily. Check to see if there are any air vent near where your orchid sits. Both air conditioners and heaters dry the air immensely. If this was the case, you’ll need to add some kind of humidity, either with a humidity tray or a humidifier. You can also use a mister.
As for the humidifier, I use this one (affiliate Link) and the reasoning behind it is explained in this article. I kept notes. 🙂 If you don’t want a humidifier, go for a mister, like this one (Affiliate Link). I also kept notes on that purchase which you can read in this article.
This change in environment doesn’t have to be only in terms of temperature or humidity. It can also be the lighting conditions. If you’ve moved your orchid from one window to the next, the leaf that was in development may take a while to continue growing, just until it’s okay with the move.
Orchids are extremely slow growers and do not take to change very well. They are resilient, but take time to get over the changes.
This change could also be a potting medium. Let’s say you have a Phalaenopsis orchid that has grown its entire life in sphagnum moss. In a sudden wave of curiosity, you try another method, like full water culture.
Do not expect your orchid to adapt quickly. It will adapt, but potting medium changes are the worst for orchids to adapt. This temporary stunning will halt any growth that is in progress. That is why I advise not to repot while the orchid is in bloom. The scare of a pot or new medium is sometimes too much for the orchid to handle and the blooms blast, even in bud.
To fix this: leave your orchid alone. 😊 Let it be…
6. Development of A Flower Spike Suspends Leaf Growth
If your orchid has been popping out new leaves left and right then suddenly manages to develop a flower spike, it might have to choose between the two. There often is not enough energy for your orchid to produce both the entire leaf and a new flower spike.
In this case, the orchid will decide to focus on the flower spike, and the leaf takes a hit. It will not develop into the full-grown leaf that it would have been. It’s a healthy leaf, but not the full size.
To avoid this happening in the future, you can upgrade your light, water, and fertilizer so that the orchid has enough energy to produce that gorgeous leaf before the flower spike develops.
Just don’t upgrade all three to maximum levels in a short period of time, which leads me to the next point.
7. Too Bright of Light Blocks Leaf Growth
All plants need sunlight to grow because of the chlorophyll which transforms light into energy. If your orchid is growing in a setup that is too bright, the leaves will turn pale yellow with reddish-purple dots on them. Like freckles, these dots contain anthocyanin, which is a natural sunscreen. Your orchid is doing well and liking its conditions, but it is at the maximum light tolerance that it can bear.
The pale-yellow color in the leaves means it doesn’t have to produce chlorophyll. Why would it? It has sufficient light. Chlorophyll is what turns the leaf green, so with less, the leaf fades into a sick yellow color (which is actually healthy for Phalaenopsis orchids).
Keep thinking along these terms. The leaf is already receiving enough light. It doesn’t need to be big, since a small leaf will produce enough energy—more than enough—so why grow big?
If your lighting is a bit too much, the orchid might not grow a leaf bigger than last year just because it doesn’t need to.
Orchids rationalize/act a little bit like my adolescent kids… “Why do I need to make my bed?” they ask every morning. Yet the orchids have more logic to their reasoning.
To fix this, if you have artificial lights, lower the shelf they are on or move the lights higher up. If your orchids are on a window sill, move them a little further to the shade or use a thicker curtain that isn’t so sheer. These should do the trick.
If you think light might be the problem and want more information, check out this article I wrote about artificial lights. I have the Mars Grow Light (affiliate Link) for my small home office.
8. Decomposed Potting Medium Prevents Leaf Growth
No matter what happens on the outside of the orchid, if the potting medium has decomposed and decayed, there is no way the orchid can grow. If you have checked off all the items above and none seem to fit, it’s time to take a look inside the pot. Decomposed potting medium causes orchid leaves to stop growing because the roots can’t absorb the nutrients in the pot.
Potting medium is supposed to be replaced every 2-3 years at most. If you use pure sphagnum moss, then you’ll have to change it every year. This is a setback to the orchid, but allowing it to sit in a pot where air can no longer circulate and the pH is rising daily because the bark is decomposing is worse.
Orchids need a fresh potting medium that allows airflow (which helps raise the Nitrogen count also) and allows the water to enter and exit quickly. If the water pools up on the top of the medium, then the orchid roots are also crushed.
Your first check should be with the potting medium. How quickly water enters and exits the pot is your signal to a good medium.
You can check the pH of the water as it exits. This is also a good way to see if the medium has decomposed. Anything higher than 6.5 for Phalaenopsis is pushing it. Decaying media will be extremely high.
If you have a lithophyte (an orchid that attaches to rocks), the pH will be higher, since the calcium carbonate that trickles down the sides of the rocks already raise the natural pH of the water they drink. Terrestrial orchids, like Phragmipediums, prefer a lower pH, and can withstand water of around 4.5. Each orchid has their own likes and preferences when it comes to pH. If you don’t know what kind of orchid you have, aim for a 5.5 to 6.5 pH.
How will this prevent the orchid from growing long, full leaves? With a potting medium that is decomposing, the roots can’t perform gas exchange and absorb the quantity of nutrients that they need to be healthy. The overall growth in the plant will halt, not just the leaf.
How to fix this problem: repot. Get a good medium and get rid of all the older potting medium.
9. Caregiver Anxiety DOESN’T Interfere with Leaf Growth
Sometimes, there is nothing wrong with the orchid. It’s just a naturally slow grower. Our anxiety projects a false idealization that the leaf should be bigger, larger, longer… Our expectations are set too high and we end up getting caught up in a fantasy world of how our orchid should look.
Anxiety for taking care of your orchid is natural and should be used as a propeller to launch you forward into reading, researching, evaluating, and learning about orchid care. Anxiety that is not followed by reasonable action is harmful.
When you first get an orchid, you might be comparing its growth to a faster-growing household plant. Orchids are extremely slow growers, which since they have all the time in the world.
We are the ones who become impatient and want to force blooms with keiki paste and root stimulating hormones. We are the ones who need to learn how to wait patiently for the orchid to do its “thing”.
There is really nothing that can change in this aspect for the orchid, but I want to chime in my two cents here about this kind of approach to life. Anxiety will eat you from the inside out.
In my years of pastoral counseling, I’ve seen way too many people fret over the little things of life. The way they handle smaller difficulties and dilemmas is the same way they handle life’s complications and problems.
Orchid care teaches us humongous amounts of patience.
Maybe this is the time to relearn how to trust the process… Relax. Enjoy nature. Take a more hands-off approach to orchid care (keep reading and researching though) and let your orchid be.
Yeah, easier said than done—I know. In essence, what I’m trying to say is that even though there is a high level of anxiety as a new orchid grower, enjoy the process.
Don’t set pre-configured milestones, but celebrate them as they naturally come along. Your orchid leaf will grow—give it time. In summary, orchid leaves can stop growing for a number of reasons. A healthy orchid always has healthy roots and leaves, and when the growth stops, this signals that something is wrong. Now that you know how to see the signs of these problems, you can properly fix what is causing this sudden halt in the orchid’s growth.
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Just to remember, orchid leaves stop growing because of nine reasons: 1) change in fertilization percentages, 2) lack of stored energy, 3) Phosphorus or Nitrogen deficiency, 4) dehydration, 5) sudden change in environment, 6) development of a flower spike, 7) too bright of light, 8) decomposed potting medium, and 9) caregiver anxiety.
I hope this article has helped. If it has, please get in touch and leave a comment below.