One of my biggest irritations with orchid growing is the amount of misinformation that is circulating both on the internet and greenhouses as to how to water your orchids. One of the biggest problems in orchid care is either over-watering or under-watering. Finding that perfect equilibrium is one of the most difficult for beginner orchid growers to master. But how do ice cubes interfere with this process?
In this article, I will explain what ice cubes do for your orchid and why you shouldn’t water orchids with ice cubes. Ice cube watering will kill orchid tissue on the leaf and stunt growth over time. Cold ice water will not decrease display life but it will deter overall life span and the quality of the orchid’s life, hindering a rebloom. The drop in temperature does not promote orchid health in roots or leaves.
To prove my points listed above, I will be using the same resources and arguments that the producers of the biggest company in the United States which promotes the ice cube method, Just Add Ice, uses.
I have nothing against this company. In fact, I bought a blue orchid from them and it’s still alive and well—no ices cubes used. I’m against the sales mechanism that they are using to promote sales is harming many orchid growers as they kill orchids over and over again. That is the whole point of this article, to save your orchids.
I’d prefer you to understand the reasoning, the why and how, behind orchid care, then to just enter a fixed routine and not really comprehending why you do what you do. This is what takes orchid care to the next level.
Know Your Sources in Orchid Care
Learn who to trust when it comes to getting your sources. To start, let me redirect you to the resources I’m using so you can see for yourself. The resource that the Ice Method states as their solid reference is a study that was done by Ohio State University, entitled “Ice cube irrigation of potted Phalaenopsis orchids does not decrease display life” (Source).
I wish they had published the entire article and not just one PowerPoint slide, but that’s what they state as their source. So, I analyzed each point in the order they are presented and will present arguments either agreeing or disagreeing with each.
Let’s dive in.
1. Watering Orchids With Ice Cubes Doesn’t Affect Display Life
I agree. Display life is the time that the orchid remains in bloom to the time that the orchid wilts. The study watered ice cubes from the time the orchid was in bloom until the time that the orchid wilted using two groups. One group of orchids was watered with ice cubes and the other was watered with water around 20.1° to 21.3° C (68.18° to 70.34° F) which is room temperature.
The display life in both groups was the same, and neither orchid was affected in how long it was open before it started to wilt. Watering with ice cubes does not affect display life in orchids because there are 6 reasons orchid blossoms wilt and the temperature of the water has nothing to do with that.
In this article I wrote, I explained the 6 reasons orchid blossoms wilt. I won’t repeat myself here because that would bore you to death, but I’ll quickly restate them: Orchid flowers will wilt because of 6 reasons:
insects and pests,
stress from moving to a new environment,
not enough humidity,
and the end of a normal life cycle.
The temperature of the water does not have a direct effect on the orchid’s time in bloom.
When I state temperature change in my original article, I’m talking about ordering orchids in the dead of winter or carrying them to the car under the blistering hot sun. Smaller items like placing orchids under the air conditioner or having the orchids in the line of a heat vent will cause the blossom to blast. If the blossoms are not yet open, they can undergo bud blast.
Why do I believe this argument is contradictory? The entire study was done in 5 or 6 months. Orchids live much longer than that, up to 150 years in nature or 20 in our household environment which we try to mimic that natural rainforest habitat.
Their study only evaluated the orchid’s blossoming life. If you’re new to orchid care, you might want to judge the health of an orchid by its flower but once you dive into orchid care, you’ll know that healthy roots and leaves are what makes the plant healthy.
In fact, a beautiful orchid blossom might be a sign of last hope before death. As a last attempt to produce a flower, the orchid will bloom in hopes to attract a pollinator. It might even produce a keiki, too. A keiki is a small clone of itself.
You can read more about keikis here, but the entire bucket list is to have one last chance of producing a seed or a new plant in hopes that this seedling will have a better life than it did. The blossom only indicates the orchid wants to procreate its genera and species—may life go on.
In all, this argument is misleading. Blossoms do not indicate healthy orchids. To fix this, I suggest the author of the study redo this method for a period of a year minimum, 3 years to be conclusive. The real test in orchid care is if your orchid reblooms, not if it stays in bloom.
2. Leachate Volume in Potting Medium Without Ice Cubes
The second test done to prove that ice cubes are a decent method (or not) of watering orchids was the quantity of water measured after watering. This method calculated how much water was added to each pot and how much was drained after watering.
The study proved that using ice cubes for watering orchids always had a less amount of leachate water that exits the pot.
Just for avoiding confusion, leaching is when you water your pot and let the water run through it, removing the excess salt and mineral build-up that occurred during fertilization or hard water usage. The idea is the same, except in this method of experimentation, they measured the input and output of each.
In essence, 2 points are wrong with that idea: the amount of water and the surface volume that the water reaches.
2A) With ice cubes, the amount of water was less.
The study concluded that this was a good thing, that the water was absorbed by the roots. Wait! What? How did they jump to that conclusion? A good thing is when water runs freely through your orchid and exits the pot freely.
In their natural habitat, most orchids will be drenched by heavy rainfall daily. They are accustomed to receiving abundant water and tons of it. They will quickly dry off because the winds that circulate through the huge Amazonian trees are quite hot and swift.
(I use the Amazon rainforest as a reference because I have lived in Brazil and it’s what I’m familiar with, but this example could be for any tropical or subtropical climate, too.) The roots get drenched and dry out quickly.
The amount of water that leaves the pot just indicates that the water was either absorbed by the roots or by the potting medium or—what this study forgot to ponder upon—that the amount of water from the ice cubes as it melted was not the same as the amount of water at room temperature.
Why is this argument misleading? This is the exact point that I try to emphasize so much in orchid care. The amount of water that leaves the pot must be “outputting”. No pun intended. It’s great to have water exiting your potting media because you know that this means water is traveling freely inside the orchid pot.
Water enters—water exits. That’s good orchid care. Once the water takes a long time to exit the pot, then you have a problem. Either your potting media has broken down or has compacted and the air is not flowing as it should.
Remember when I mentioned that the orchid needs airflow? In the rainforest, these hot currents provoke rapid evaporation of any water droplets in the air roots, and there is never any root rot. The amount of water is heavy, but so is the drying off period. So how does less water leaching the pot indicate a good thing?
In essence, you are watering with less water when you use ice cubes. There is less water that is being provided, and if the orchid is ever going to receive its fertilizer in the doses that it needs, it will need tons of water.
2B) Ice Cubes Only Hydrate a Small Area
Another point to consider: when you water with ice cubes, the ice melts and trickles down into the potting medium directly under the pot. The area of contact with the melted water will be circumferences by the size of the ice cube and where it was placed. Not all the medium will be impacted by the melted water, leaving parts of the roots still dry.
To adequately hydrate an orchid, by that I mean water, take your orchid to the sink. Pour water over it and turn the pot in all directions so that the medium is thoroughly watered. Do this several times. Let water pour into the potting media.
Another method of watering orchids is soaking them. Let the entire pot (up to the bottom of the stem) soak in a bucket of water for 15 to 20 minutes. Really let those orchid roots absorb the water in the bucket for as long as they want. Let them drink—no harm done here.
In fact, our home environments are usually a bit drier than the orchid would like and it will need more watering and constant misting.
With only a few ice cubes a week, this method is not the amount of water that actually comes into contact with the roots is small. The orchid lives, but would much prefer to be watered throughout the entirety of the pot, not just the tiny places where the ice melted.
3. Potting Media Influences Water Absorption, Iced or Not
I have to go off on a tangent here, but it is related to the former item, the amount of water that the pot leached.
Another item that this company forgot to include is that the potting medium that the orchids are planted in. Most orchids come in pure sphagnum moss, which absorbs tons of water. Sphagnum moss is the number one water retention organic material that is used in all potting mediums, no matter what the orchid.
If a beginner orchid grower buys two orchids, one with the brownie-type medium that is made specifically for ice cubes, and another with sphagnum moss, the results will be drastically different.
Try this ice method with an orchid that is planted in sphagnum moss, then the amount of leachate water will be close to none. The sphagnum absorbs all the water (as an ice cube will melt slowly) and the orchid roots will rot.
If you have an orchid planted in orchid bark or pure charcoal, the amount of water absorption will change. In these two cases, the water is not absorbed as much and the roots will be surrounded by water for more time, again, provoking root decay.
On the other hand, the brownie-like, peat moss substance that the ice method uses is adapted to receive the ice cube water. It is made to enhance the water absorption/retention in a slow drip ratio. The roots will not rot because this medium is specifically made to hinder that.
To have an adequate study done to prove that watering with ice cubes is an efficient method, then the study should have used several different potting media and not totally 100% their own.
Their orchids are beautiful but their methods of orchid care are not.
4. Media Temperature Inside the Orchid Pot With Ice Cubes
The temperature inside the potting medium was always my biggest argument against using the ice cube method in the first place. I argued that the temperature that the ice melted was still incredibly cold and the roots would take a hit. I just didn’t have facts to prove my argument because I don’t have the right equipment to conduct a study like that.
So, I’d like to thank this study because now I have the facts to prove my point. 😊 In their study, the ice cubes melted and by the time the water would interact with the roots, it was 13° C (55° F). Only 5 hours later would the temperature increase to room temperature.
In nature, most orchids will thrive in habitats that are tropical and subtropical, never having seen a cold day in their lifetime. (Some actually like colder weather, but not ice cold weather.) Most orchids have no idea what the word cold even means. Ok, that was a bit stretching it, but you get the idea. If you want a better idea of temperatures, this article about the right temperature for orchids a good place to start.
There are three distinct categories for temperatures: cool, intermediate, and warm-growing orchids.
Cool orchids tolerate a temperature of 50ºF (10ºC) during winter.
During the summer, the maximum should be 75ºF (24ºF).
Intermediate orchids prefer 55º to 86ºF (13º to 30º C).
Warm growing orchids range from 64º to 90º F (18º to 32º C.)
There are cool growing phalaenopsis orchids, that will tolerate temperatures of 50. So this is indeed tolerated by the orchid roots, but the water is not that cold ever. Just the environment. Yet this is one specific genus of orchids. What about the other thousands?
What would happen to my Cattleya orchid (such a warm grower that I use a heating pad under it) if I watered it with 50-degree water? Yikes, I can’t even think about it.
So even though the specific type of Phalaenopsis orchids that are adapted to getting cooler water do well with ice cubes, most thousands of other orchids are not. The study was specific—Phalaenopsis orchids—not every other kind of orchid. This is the type of orchids that this company sells, so it makes sense to water it with ice cubes.
Yet how many other orchids have suffered in lieu of the cool Phalaenopsis growers who, misguided, never learned how to properly water and venture out to buy other orchids? They die. They turn bitter against orchids. They hate all orchid-related things in life and give up. This is why I have to write this article—it kills me to see this happen.
You have no idea how many people I talk to that say they have killed orchid after orchid and the first question I ask is, “Do you use ice cubes?” Their answer? “Why of course!”. Case closed.
In case you need more arguments for not using water this cold, check out this article by the Missouri Botanical Gardens about frost. (Source) In that article, they explain the effects of cooler temperatures.
Most of us as orchid growers know better to keep our orchids outside during winter, but the main harm is done during early spring and late fall. I’m guilty of this… Oh, Kansas weather. Unpredictable. I thought it was warm enough but woke up to the leaves having been frosted. I’ll never do that again. It’s “inside” for my orchids and from now on, always “inside”.
5. Photosynthesis Levels in Watering
In their study to prove that watering with ice cubes was in fact not harmful, the level of chlorophyll was measured after 5 months of using ice cubes. This was an interesting argument, but the conclusion was again, misguiding.
Chlorophyll is what collects the light and transforms it into energy using ATP. It is also what makes your orchid leaves and roots green. It uses Phosphate (P) to break down energy into ADP and also stores energy for a healthier plant. Chlorophyll is involved in all this.
If your roots are buried inside a thick, dark pot and there are no holes, the roots will become yellow. This is not a sign of unhealthy roots, just ones that have no use to produce chlorophyll since there is no sunlight. In a clear plastic pot, the roots near the outside of the pot will be bright green.
The closer the orchid is to the light, the paler yellow (or spotted, purplish-red) it will become. The further away, it will receive less light. So any light it receives must be converted into energy. Therefore, the orchid produces more chlorophyll resulting in a darker green color.
May I ask the big question—the elephant in the room question—where does water fit in here?
My arguments against using ice cubes are that the cold temperatures that touch the roots and leaves will cause harm to the plant cells, killing them. This has not much to do with chlorophyll, which is all light related.
To fit three ice cubes on mini-Phals, you have to stack them suckers up high. The pot is small; ice cubes not as much. A big Phalaenopsis has an indication of 5 ice cubes. It is inevitable that the ice cubes will touch the plant leaf or stem. There is no way around it.
Unless you use one, wait until it melts, then use another one.
Where the plant leaf or stem comes in direct contact with the ice cube will destroy the outer coating cells, provoking an open lesion. The page I referred to above, written by Missouri Botanical gardens, explained it well.
They compared the frost lesion to a water balloon and the point of contact to the frost was like a needle. The hydro repellent coating on the Phalaenopsis leaf is now perforated and broken, and the plant cell dies.
In only 5 months, the contact area would be small. Yet use this method over the entire orchid’s life and you have damaged leaves and suffering roots. The probability of infection increases because the orchid has an open wound of dead plant cells that do not protect the orchid from outside harm.
It feels like the study wanted to prove that plant cells were not harmed and used an unrelated item to prove that. Chlorophyll levels in the orchid will be the same with ice water or without ice water. It’s not related. Chlorophyll does not indicate plant health either, just how close it is to the light—or not.
In my opinion, to base a conclusion that leaf health is not affected by the water temperatures, then conduct this study with the increase in bacterial infection at the stem and leaf where the ice cubes had contact.
Another idea: after one year of watering with ice cubes, take pictures of the leaf. Are there visible signs of stress or duress? Is the leaf undamaged, with no dead spots? That would indicate a healthy leaf, not the presence or lack of chlorophyll.
6. Final Dry Weight of Leaf, Roots, and Stem
The final point in the study (according to the simplified PowerPoint slide) is the weight of the flower after the blooms had fallen off. The idea behind this is that if the ice cubes had provoked any death, the plant would be lighter. The study concluded that both orchids, ice cubes and room temperature water, showed no indication of decay or death.
At first, this argument is convincing. Yet they are weighing the dead root tissue in with the live root tissue.
As far as I know, when I die, I will be the same weight as I am alive. (Gosh darn… I’ll have to lose those extra pounds before I go.) Please correct me if I’m wrong, but the weight is not going anywhere.
The main weight is water anyway since roots are considerably light. Velamen is practically indispensable. There has to be another way to prove this point. This argument didn’t hold quite well.
They need to evaluate the live roots only, discarding the dead material. That would really make a difference. Of course, how can you rule out the death of the root was due to cold water and not something else?
In all this point just doesn’t fit.
7. Further Reasons to Doubt the Ice Cube Method Study
This study had me intrigued for a long time. I wanted so bad to actually read the study, but all I got was the simplified PowerPoint slide. Please present the facts. That’s how we all learn. Yet, even in this study, I have several concerns that invalidate my trust in this study. I’ll present them one by one.
7A. The Orchids Used in This Study were Given By The Company in Question
I really don’t want to be biased, but the orchids provided in this study were all donated by Green Circle Growers. This sentence is printed in the lower right side of the power point, “Thanks to Green Circle Growers (Oberlin, Ohio) for providing orchids.”
Guess who owns that nursery? Just Add Ice.
It’s just odd that the company that wants to prove its point provided all the “material” for the study. How trustworthy is that? Please repeat this study with orchids by other companies. Then you can test the different potting media and the root system absorption of ice-cold water.
7B. The Resources Cited in the Bibliography
When you use research to prove or disprove a point, you first start with a hypothesis. This study started with a point to prove then found material to back it’s evidence. One of the main sources cited in the article was “Onofrey, D. 2009. Driving sales and value. Greenhouse Grower. 29 Oct.2009.http://www.greenhousegrower.com/uncategorized/driving-sales-value/ “
I read this article, as you can too, and you’ll see that this article does not provide the scientific facts for the study. There is nothing about chlorophyll, or leachate volume, or display life, or media temperature, or even final dry weight.
The article is about how the marketers of the Ice Method wanted a way to sell the orchids, by fixing a problem. The article is clear on how the marketing process went about placing more orchids in front of buyers and how they profited from it.
From a marketing standpoint, I learned a lot. From the orchid standpoint, I was horrified.
They asked themselves what the biggest problem was for new orchid growers. Watering. They sat for 5 months, thinking about a marketing strategy to fix this that would be easy and simple to follow. Then they came up with the Just Add Ice logo and instructions.
I am not against these orchids at all… I have a blue one, as I mentioned in the article. But please, if that is going to be your guide, then please, for the love of all things green and nature-loving, please instruct new growers to let the ice cubes melt in a glass and water them the next day. Problem solved! I’ll be extremely happy, then.
The article is at most shocking since I had an inside glimpse of how this process worked to find a logo and sell more orchids. Please shoot me if I ever go this low in trying to sell my products or affiliate links. <– Ok, a bit drastic, but please let me know I’m stretching it. To make extra sales, this company sacrificed the care and knowledge that goes into orchid care.
My message to the company: Please go back to the drawing table and come up with something else… I beg you. In the name of all orchid growers who are starting off, please change your logo and instructions. Orchids live for more than 5 months, so please don’t let this be all about sales.
7C) Where’s the Real Research?
On the webpage (Source) that provides resources to this study, you are informed that you can read the full article. In their words, “To find out more about the study methodology and results, read the manuscript published in the September 2017 HortScience Journal.”
But the link sends you to a PowerPoint. One slide. A simple summary. (Source)
I’ve done my share of research (although it’s in theology and nursing, not orchid care) that I am skeptical when I don’t see the evidence. I’d like to read the study, please.
Show me the facts. Show me the other resources used.
I am not an orchid expert by any means but want to deepen my research in orchid care.
If they can prove that ice cubes work, then I’m all open to it. But I can’t do that without the written article.
Why not provide access to the article? You’d think that something so beneficial would be widely accessible.
Image Credit: © 2020 Orchideria. All Rights Reserved.
I had to scale down the image to fit the screen, but click on the link in the paragraph above and you can come to your own conclusions.
7D) Orchids live Longer than One Blooming Cycle
The entire study was done during five months, the display life of the orchid. In this article, I talk about the life cycle of orchids. An orchid lives much more than it’s display life. So why conduct a study with only 5 months?
If it is a selling tactic—the orchid dies, buy another one—then it works.
But I’d like to have a little more faith in this company to believe that this is not the only reason or even the underlying reason for that matter. Please tell me there is more depth to this company than to make a sale. A reoccurring sale at that, since orchids will eventually die quicker if provided wrong care.
I would like to see a study that is done over a longer period of time, in where the reblooming cycles are studied, the size of the leaves, the quantity of new root growth, the evidence of different potting media, and so many other items that I can’t even think of here.
In all, please don’t use ice cubes—EVER. Just don’t. Your orchid will suffer the death of outer layer leaf cells where the ice cubes come in contact with the ice, the roots won’t be properly hydrated, and you won’t learn how to effectively water your orchids (how much and how often). I can’t be more against this watering method.
If you have liked this article, please share it. It’s not the usual article I write since I don’t like to shame companies, but this topic needs to be talked about until the company changes its name, instructions, and logo.
Changing subjects, I always find it hard to go back and look for articles that the author cited while I read it. To help you, I’ll list them again below, just so they’re easy to find.
I wish you the best in all your orchid care. If none of the article above really tickle you, and if you really want to know how to water and learn the correct way, check out these articles about humidity, watering cymbidiums, watering Catasetum, and how to water a mounted orchid.
All these methods and quantities are quite different. Watering orchids depends on your potting media, how old the orchid is, what your climate is like, what season it is, if the orchid has a dormancy cycle, and so many other factors.
You have to find what is right your you and your conditions, and the main thing is trial and error. Once you find the sweet spot, it’s all joy from there.
Don’t Stop Learning!
If you want to be included in a 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.