Cultivating Orchids & Crafting Terrariums

Orchid Life Cycle 101:
Steps of Your Orchid’s Life

This article will talk about how your orchid gets from a seed to your home, and how you can take care of it in your house. It won’t focus on the stages from seed germination to the fertilization, since as an orchid hobbyist, that isn’t something I’d be doing anytime soon. Just so you’ll know, those parts will be mentioned, but not as the focus point of this article.

If you're interested in the various phases of orchid seeds, I recommend this article called "Germination and seedling establishment in orchids: a complex of requirements", written by Hanne Rasmussen and published in the Annals of Botany.

In our article, we will focus on other aspects of the orchid's life.

What this article does mention:
Orchid Life-Cycle
"FIRE ORCHID" by tolitzdelacasa is licensed under CC BY 2.0
How Long do Cut Orchids Last

How long do Blooms Last

Do Orchids go Into Dormancy

How Keikis (baby orchids) are produced

In the Beginning…

There are two ways that new orchids grow. The first, a keiki, is a small clone plant of the mother, carrying the same characteristics: size, color, shape, growing conditions, etc. Keiki is a Hawaiian word for baby orchid.

Keiki’s grow on the side of the stem, developing new roots and leaves. In eight months to a year, they are ready to be removed from the adult plant. To read more on how to care for keikis, this article is a good starting point.

The main concern is to have patience for this keiki to grow roots before you remove it from the mother plant. Don’t cut it off too soon. When there are three to four good roots and at least two leaves, then you can remove it safely.

The best place to repot the keiki is in the same pot as it’s mother, since it will already be used to the lighting, watering, fertilizing and humidity in this pot.

The mother plant will also help regulate the watering in the potting medium, since such a small plant by itself in a pot can easily get over-watered, breaking down the medium even more.

The second way is one I haven’t yet experience personally, but is growing from seed. This method will take quite a lot longer to produce a full blossoming orchid, anywhere from four to eight years. The seed itself will take up to two months to react and start to grow. In two years, it will produce its first leaf.
Basically, there are two ways to germinate orchids from seeds:
(1) symbiotic germination, with the help of a fungus named Mycorrhizal fungi, and (2) asymbiotic germination, in petri dishes with all the necessary ingredients to germinate well.

If you have time and patience, it may be something that is worthwhile. Yet, the process is more technical than I wish to expand in this article.
orchid humidifier
"Orchid" by Nikonian Novice is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
As you can see, most orchid growers stick to the first method, which is hoping a keiki will grow. There are keiki pastes that you can apply to simulate growing hormones in the mother plant, if you want to step in and induce a baby orchid.

From Keiki to Adulthood

Keikis can move to their own pot once they have a strong root system and at least two well-developed leaves. From here, they are kept in extreme care, until they send out their first flower spike.

Once the flower spike has appeared, they are ready to go to a greenhouse, or be placed for ordering online. In most cases, this phase can take up to five years, but is mainly around three.

How are orchids pollinated?

Keikis are the first way orchids are reproduced, but not the only way. Pollination is the second. Orchids blossom for one reason only: to attract pollinators. Outside marveling the amazing flower, the stories (or reasons) behind each orchid blossom as to why they grow that shape, or emanate a particular odor, or display certain colors is fascinating.

Each orchid has a special pollinator that it attracts. Some prefer bees, others moths and butterflies. If the animal that pollinates the orchid has nocturnal habits, then the orchid will naturally blossom at night. If the pollinator a daytime creature, then the orchid blossoms during the day.
orchid bee polinator
""Green Orchid Bee (Euglossa dilemma)" by bob in swamp is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Some flying insects or even hummingbirds have seasonal activity, which also explains why orchids blossom in the particular season that they do.

The flower is adapted to attract its preferred pollinator, often seducing it and trapping it inside the flower until the pollen sac is firmly attached to the abdomen or behind the neck.

Once that task is complete, the pollinator is free to leave, going on to the next orchid.
David Horak wrote a very interesting article for Brooklyn Botanical Garden of several different types of orchids and how they attract pollinators. From scent to the flower formation, to color…

One example cited in his work is the Oyphrs, which attracts a male bee. The flower is shaped like a female bee and even produces a particular scent of a sexually active female bee. The male bee, in a flight of pure love (or lust) at first sight, lands on the labellum of the flower, and pollinia is strategically attached.

The pollinia which is attached to each insect (or bird) is taken to the next flower, where it comes in contact with the stigma. Once the new flower is pollinated, it will close in on itself and a seed pod will grow. Each orchid has a specific time period allow for a full seed to grow, ranging from a week to almost a full year.

…and The Orchid Life Cycle Repeats Itself

From the six steps in the life-cycle of any plant (seed, germination, growth, reproduction, pollination, and seed spreading stages) the orchid now will repeat this process for years to come.

How Long do Orchid Blooms Last?

This will depend mainly on the genus of orchid you have. Most Phalaenopsis orchids will last up to 3 months in bloom, which is why they are one of the most common orchids commercialized. Cattleyas will be open for less time, almost reaching a month in bloom.

Temperature influences orchid blooms, from halting blossoming all together all the way to stimulating orchid budding. If your orchid isn’t blooming, the first reason could be not enough light, but the second (and most common one) is not a drop in the temperature at night. Phalaenopsis need a 10ºF (11ºC) drop in temperature at night to induce a flower spike. If this temperature is not met, it doesn’t realize the seasons are changing and it keeps waiting.

According to Roger West, from the Amherst Orchid Society (full credits at the end of the article), once the bloom opens, you can prolong them if you do a few simple things. In his example, he uses a Cattleya orchid. It bloomed early, but he wanted the bloom to last a little longer for an orchid show, which was a couple weeks away.

Once the flowers have blossomed, he waited three or four days, then moved the plant to a cooler room. He waits this period because the flowers can take up to four days to reach their full potential. Mr. West explained that his Cattleya blooms have lasted up to eight weeks with this method.

If you want to read about how temperature influences orchid blooms even more, this article on correct orchid temperature is a good place to find more information.

Do Orchids go into Dormancy?

Dormancy is a period when you may think your orchid has died. After the most beautiful blossoms, they wither and fall. The dead orchid spike is actually alive, but also starts to wither.

The flowers have fallen off, and the orchid doesn’t grow new leaves or roots. It just sits there…immobile, lifeless, and lost. Most orchids have the sad fate of ending up in the trash during a period of dormancy.
Note: If you’re wondering, dormancy is the best time to repot, or make any changes in the orchid, since it won’t react to the environment as much.

The orchid has spent a lot of energy to produce the flowers and now is depleted.

Note: Phalaenopsis orchids do not have a dormancy period.
"Orchid" by Nikonian Novice is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Of course, that’s the newbie explanation, because pseudobulbs store energy. But the basic idea is correct. The orchid needs a “vacation” from life and checks out.

During this dormant period, the orchid spends less energy because it’s feeding less, drinking less, photosynthesizing less… Which means you’ll need to water it less and fertilize it less. It’s very easy to over-water during dormancy.

Most all orchids have a recovery period from blooming, but a few genera don’t, like Jewel Orchids (Lepanthes). Some of the dormancy periods are so quick that a new orchid grower might not even realize that it has come and gone. To read a full article about dormancy and how the orchid care changes during this period, click the title above.

How Long do Cut Flower Spikes Last?

Even though cut flowers aren't a part of the orchid's life cycle, it is if you make floral designs. If you are making a floral design with orchids, a natural question is how long do the cut orchids last? Most Phalaenopsis and Oncidiums orchids will last up to 2 weeks in water, but aim for 1 week for best results. The water will have to be changed every other day. Cymbidiums and Anthuriums will last a little longer, up to 4 weeks. Some florists say these last two will last up to 6 weeks.

How do I induce an orchid to rebloom?

The easiest way to make an orchid rebloom is cutting back the flower spike, leaving the top node intact. This rids the spike of the old blooms, but is still green, healthy, and sturdy enough to produce another bloom near the top. If you cut the flower spike all the way back to the base, you will induce root growth and not a new flower spike.

To know how to care for an orchid after reblooming, read this article. Whether you induce a new flower spike or cut it back to induce roots, make a conscious decision. Each one will change the way you fertilize.

Please note that not all orchid have the possibility of producing a second bloom in the same season. Phalaenopsis do, but some varieties just don’t. It’s one blooming season, then 2 to 6 months of dormancy (depending on the orchid). So do some research on your specific type of orchid and verify that it is a kind that reblooms.

How long do orchids live?

In the wild, orchids can reach up to 200 years of age, and will long survive our grandchildren. At home, the normal life-expectancy of an orchid is around 20 years.

It’s very complicated to give a general answer, since there are over 28,000 genera of orchids in the world, and found in all continents except Antarctica.

It also depends how well you take care of it.
Cattleya Orchid Care
"Maxima" by Shaun@KL is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Once you know how, orchids are very easy plants to cultivate. But until that knowledge is gained, your orchid could be suffering form root rot, overwatering, too much light, too little light, get watered with ice cubes, and so on.

(Yeah… about the ice cubes, this is the worst advice ever for orchids.) 
So, this answer to how long do orchids live is very “general”, which in other words means, “wrong.” In greenhouses, which do a lot better job at controlling humidity, temperature, lighting, and fertilization, they usually will do well for 20-30 years. They may live longer than that, but each year is a little weaker than the previous. This can go on to around 50 years.

In my small home office, well, I’ll be good to get to 15, even with a grow light and a humidifier.
Cited Articles:

West, Roger. 2020, February. Volume 28, Issue 2. January Meeting. The Newsletter of the AMHERST ORCHID SOCIETY An Affiliate of the American Orchid Society.

Horak, David. Orchids and Their Pollinators 2002. Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

Rasmussen HN, Dixon KW, Jersáková J, Těšitelová T. Germination and seedling establishment in orchids: a complex of requirements. Ann Bot. 2015;116(3): 391‐402.  doi:10.1093/aob/mcv087

Happy Cultivating!
Signature Amanda Matthews
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2 comments on “Orchid Life Cycle 101: Steps of Your Orchid’s Life”

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Amanda June Matthews at Orchideria
Hi, there! I'm Amanda Matthews.

I write all the tutorials on Orchideria so unfortunately, I can't blame anyone else for all the spelling mistakes.   :)

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.

When I'm not working on the next chapter of my book or online course, I'm exploring a new campsite to venture out into nature. Pitching a tent for the weekend with my two children while I fire up a barbecue is the best way to live.

Click here to go to my Author Page to check out my heart-wrenching memoir.

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