Rice Water for Orchids: In-Depth Nutrient Analysis

The first time I heard about rice water for orchids I really didn’t know what to think. Reusing the rice water as an orchid fertilizer has been one of those organic, do-it-yourself tips that have been passed down through generations. Except whenever someone asks what is in the rice water, or how it helps orchids grow, nobody has a specific answer. So, I set out to find it, and just like the garlic water article (LINK), I was pleasantly surprised with the results.

As a good cooking practice, you should rinse rice grains to remove any excess “dust” that you don’t want in your meal. I had always thought it was just that–dust. Yet there is more to that milky-water that usually goes down the drain. If you save this water and use it to water your orchids, you can see some noticeable differences. But…it that really true? Does rice water help orchid growth?

How is Rice Water Effective for Orchids?

Using rice water as an orchid fertilizer is beneficial to your orchid because the essential nutrients contained in the rice grain(like nitrogen, phosophorus and potasium) promote healthy orchid leaves, and stronger and larger orchid roots. But the benefits don’t stop there. Rice water is favorable for orchids because 1) it increases the starches that beneficial fungi use; and 2)  it provides the orchid with protein, crude fiber, free amino acids, calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, potassium, thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin. Not bad for something that was going to waste!

Orchids and Rice Water
Orchids and Rice Water

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Does Rice Water Benefit All Orchids?

To find the answer above about rice water for orchids, I had to wade through tons of articles. Some had totally contradicting points, but it was all I say, you say… The research just wasn’t there. It’s easy to be accustomed to what we hear and with out scientific study, the old wife’s tales might (or might not) be true.

The hardest part was to get the information that had scientific research already published and apply rice water specifically to orchid care. There isn’t that much that is available and/or accessible to the public.

Orchid roots are a whole different ballgame than normal flower roots, since 75% of orchids are epiphytes or lithophytes, attaching themselves to trees and rocks. Only 25% of orchids are terrestrial or semi-terrestrial. That means the way the roots work is fundamentally different in each case, singling them out from the rest of houseplants.

If you have a semi-terrestrial or terrestrial orchid, then a lot of this information will not apply to you in the same way. That is good news, because you can readily take the research that is applicable to other household plants that thrive in soil, and the rice water results will be the same. In other words, you can use the rice water at ease and your orchids will appreciate it.

In this article though, I will be addressing strictly the epiphytic orchids such as Phalaenopsis, Cattleya, Dendrobium, Catasetum, Oncidium, and other epiphyte orchids and how rice water affect their roots and leaves.

The good news is that what our grandmothers told us about using rice water is now proven in orchid care and research has finally proven what they had known all along. Let’s get into point of how rice water is good for fertilizing orchids naturally.

Using Rice Water as an Orchid Fertilizer

The translucent water will contain mainly crushed particles of rice but can also contain other minerals that have been added to the rice plantation. Half of the water-soluble minerals will be transferred from the rice into the water.

One article, Rice Watering Garden, cited a study performed by Malakar and Banarjee (1959) reported that after rinsing the rice, the nutrients it transferred to the water were roughly:

7% protein,
30% crude fiber,
15% free amino acids,
25% calcium (Ca),
47% phosphorus (P),
47% iron (Fe),
11% zinc (Zn),
41% potassium (K),
59% thiamine,
26% riboflavin, and
60% niacin”.

Please note these are percentages compared to the rice’s natural uncooked grain, not the total percentage in the water. That’s why it doesn’t add up to 100%.

I didn’t find the NPK of rice water, just the boiled water, and I don’t use that. The authors justified the lack of an exact NPK ratio since it will depend on what rice you use, how much water, and how long the rice sits in that water. Basically, there are not yet studies that prove what the concentration of NPK is in rice water.

Not only minerals are transferred to the rice but also essential starches and carbohydrates. (SourceOpens in a new tab.

So… what does that mean? Orchids need to have a balanced form of nutrients that they get fed all the time in little doses, constantly and repetitively. In this article (LINK) I wrote about orchid fertilizers and the 5 ways/methods to use fertilizers, I go over the amounts and doses of NPK and how to understand them.

I recommend that article to anyone who is starting orchid care just because it shows you what chemical elements and minerals your orchid needs and at what percentage (or dosage).

Is Rice Water Acidic or Alkaline?

Rice water has a pH of 6, which is slightly acidic. This means that rice water is perfect for what our orchids like, which is usually around the 6.7 to 7.2 range. This is for the “presoaked and/or quickly rinsed off” rice, not the fermented rice. For orchid care, you have to be careful that the potting medium doesn’t go too acidic though. If you haven’t changed out your sphagnum moss or orchid bark in a couple years, it might be a good idea to do a pH test.

A pH test for the water in your potting medium is easy to achieve. Water you orchid and collect the water that drains out. With a pH test (or litmus test – easily found in aquarium stores) you can see what happens to the water as it enters in contact worth your media.

How To Make Rice Water for Orchids: Recipe

There are essentially two different ways that you can get this rice water.

Method One: Rice Water for Orchids Recipe(Steps)

  1. Rinse the rice thouroughly in a collander over a tupperware or bowl, colelcting that water.
  2. Do not use any salt or other flavorings to cook the rice at this time.
  3. Save that rice water and use it to pour over the potting media of your orchid. (Don’t water the crown).

One rice water recipe is to soak the rice in water, as you do to rinse the rice grains off before you cook it. The second way is to use 2x the amount of water that you would use, boil the water with rice for a few minutes, then strain off the top portion of water.

I, personally, have never used this second method because it takes too long, and I don’t like to be around boiling water.

So back to the first method: you need to rinse the rice in water and swish it around a few minutes to clean the rice grains. What comes off in the water is what you will be using in your rice water to fertilized your orchids.

Method Two: Rice Water for Orchids Recipe

There is another method that I haven’t tried since I’m reluctant to add this product to my potting media. The result is a fermented rice water, but in essence, I’d be adding more fungus to my potting media (rice wine in formation). No matter how much I know that some bacteria and fungi are beneficial, I just can’t get myself to add that to my orchids. I fight hard enough against root rot to even try.

Yet, I can’t write this article without mentioning it because for other household plants (and terrestrial orchids) this solution has been proven to be beneficial.

In this method, the recipe is the same except the time the rice sits in the water in a shady, cool place and the wait time is expanded to 3-4 days. Some authors say 10 days. This allows fungus to grow in the water and feed off the rice, turning this water into a fermented water.

Don’t get me wrong, I love wine, and there are many ways to make rice wine, but I just can’t get myself to try the fermented rice water. If you have tried this, please comment in the section at the end of this article and tell me how it went.

Cattleya Orchid
Cattleya Orchid Watered with Rice Water (once every two weeks is my schedule)

Rice Water Feeds the Orchid’s Mycorrhizal Fungi Essential Starches

The reason that this newly-fermented rice water is beneficial because orchids have a special relationship with fungus that is classified as a mycorrhizal relationship.

Mycorrhiza comes from the Greek, “Mykos” which is fungus, and “riza” which is roots. The fungus will provide the roots with all the nutrients that the orchid roots can’t digest themselves, and in return, the orchid provides the fungus with…literally nothing.

It’s the worst type of toxic relationship possible, but all the benefits are on the orchid’s side. Once the orchid has reached a mature enough state to live on its own it can do 2 things: consume the fungus entirely turning itself into a parasite or live pacifically with the fungus and have it do all the hard work.

Think of this relationship as a young adult who won’t move out of his parent’s house but doesn’t want to get a job either. The orchid lives off the nutrients the fungus provides and gives nothing to the fungus in return.

Rice water will provide a healthy quantity of starch to the fungus in the form of carbohydrates, which it absolutely devours. Now this next part is a bit technical, but please stay with me. The orchid roots will absorb the starch in the rice water, if they have the CAM pathways, which thick-rooted Phalaenopsis and Cattleya have. (If you are wondering, CAM is short for Crassulacean Acid Metabolism and it’s how most thick-leaved orchids process their sugars. It’s one of three ways orchids process sugars and amino acids.)

To summarize, the fermented rice water will provide the fungus inside the orchid pot the sugars and starches it needs, nourishing them. In return, the fungus will degrade the elements in your potting media and turn them into nutrients that the orchid’s roots can readily absorb, lessening the work that the orchid must do to get energy.

Even if you have a semi-hydroponic setup, which contains considerably less fungus, the fermented rice water will still benefit your orchid. The new roots can absorb starch, but the older roots, not as much.

In essence, fermented rice water benefits both epiphytic and terrestrial orchids; orchids that have little to no bacteria and fungus, to those that have tons of fungus (the beneficial fungus…not the types of fungus I try to get rid of).

Non-Fermented Rice Water for Orchids

Most of the articles I read made a point in saying that the fermented rice water for orchids didn’t smell or have a sour stench, but I still can’t get myself to test it. That leaves me with the second method which is the soaking for a few hours in water as a pre-rinse cycle before I cook the rice.

This method is what I use, and I’ve found it to be beneficial. Since I’m going to throw away that water anyway, it’s best just to use it on the orchids and other houseplants.

The silky, powder-like water that drains off the rice grains contain around 16 % of protein. Triglycerides and lipids come in at 10%, while starch has 9% of the composition. “Carbohydrates, inositol, phytic acid and inorganic substances are other components in rice water.”

The orchids roots will absorb this rice water in the form of starch, independent of the fungus. Starch is what provides the orchid with energy when it needs it, and the orchid can store this energy both in it’s roots and in the leaves.

Can Rice Water be Bad for Orchids?

Yes, too much rice water can make the orchid roots rot and proliferate any abnormal levels of bacteria and fungus in the potting media if you water too much. Bacteria is one of the main problems orchid growers face and the cause is usually over-watering. You can read more about bacteria in orchid pots in this article I wrote (LINK).Opens in a new tab.

How do Orchids Absorb the Rice Water?

I’ve read some arguments that state that the orchids can’t absorb the starches in the water and need the bacteria to break them down, much like calcium needs to be dissolved into calcium-nitrate before the orchid can absorb it.

Well, that isn’t the case.

In this article published by Orchid Digest (SourceOpens in a new tab.), the author details how the roots absorb nutrients. She goes into a lot of detail about the anatomy of orchid roots, and I just found it to be fascinating to read. In any case, orchids can absorb starch, and after they absorb it, they store it in two locations: 1) in the endodermis of the cortex of new roots, and in the leaves—thanks to the xylem.

Starch, which translates as carbohydrates or sugar, is how the orchid stores energy. Remember the CAM pathway I mentioned above? This is where starch comes in handy.

These orchids usually live in habitats where it rains abundantly then is suddenly stops. The orchid roots dry out quickly and must be able to store the maximum amount of minerals, nutrients, and water until the next time that it rains.

The velamen on these types of orchids will absorb the starch independent of the fungus, and that starch is transferred through the xylem (if compared to the human body it would be the circulatory system of the plant) and stores sugars in the form starch. Later the orchid will use this starch, breaking off little pieces and use it as energy.

Normally, to store energy the orchid would need tons of water.

In environments where water is not promised, and the orchid doesn’t know when it will receive its next rain, the orchid made a way of absorbing sugars, transforming them into starch. Storing starch doesn’t require water, so it can economize the little water the roots collected.

In essence, when you water your orchids with rice water, the high levels of starch will be absorbed by the roots. Not only that, but they are also stored in the leaves to efficiently reduce the amount of water they need to use energy.

Orchids In Water Culture

Does Rice Water Mean Starch…Or Sugar?

The breakdown of the starch provided by the rice water is done to produce energy for your orchid. Sugars do the same thing, so why not just add sugar to the water? There is a whole different debate of whether molasses or honey would have the same effect of rice water on orchid roots.

Orchid leaves photosynthesize to produce sugar—that’s their main purpose in life. But adding starch (which will eventually be reduced from some sort of sugar) doesn’t have the same effect. Orchid roots can absorb and exude sugar from their roots and control the intake of their sugar through their roots. (SourceOpens in a new tab.)

The fungi which receive this starchy water form the pre-rinsed rice will increase the amount of CO2 in the orchid potting media along with supplemental doses of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.

This only enhances their growth. According to one study done by Dr. Christopher Teh, (an expert in crop modelling, environmental biophysics, and soil conservation) senior lecturer from the Faculty of Agriculture, University Putra Malaysia, the crops that were watered with rice water showed better results than the ones fertilized with normal chemical fertilizers.

In that article, the author says, “Results of the study into the beneficial use of rice water for plants showed that using the water from washed rice is as effective, and in some cases more effective than NPK fertilizer in promoting plant growth, at least in terms of the number of plant leaves produced and higher plant biomass, and both treatments were more effective than the plain water control group.”

Can you Trade Out Your Orchid Fertilizer for Rice Water?

I do not recommend trading out the rice water totally for chemically produced fertilizer since your orchid still needs other micronutrients that rice water doesn’t provide.

It’s good to have a schedule of when you added fertilizer to your orchids and keep the dosage in between the recommended limits. In rice water, we really don’t know what those dosages are. You could be overfertilizing one micronutrient while under fertilizing another.

I recommend using rice water no more than once a month and keeping your normal fertilizer schedule with the recommended 20-2-20 NPK ratio.

How Often Should I Apply Rice Water on Orchids?

This answer is hard to give because orchids are so varied in their care. It will depend what potting media you use, how humid your environment is, how hot it is, and a whole myriad of items like that. The safest answer to satisfy both Greeks and Trojans is to integrate the rice water in your orchid routine and skip a few watering rounds.

This means that if you water once a week, then use rice water every other week, but only on the days that you water. If you water two to three times a week, then every third watering, use rice water. This way you aren’t tempted to water your orchids every time you make rice, whether they need it or not. This is the fastest way to ensure root rot by far.

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.

Orchid Fertilization

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.

In all, I wish you the best in you orchid care, and happy cultivating!

Signature Amanda Matthews

Amanda Matthews

Amanda Matthews is a theological professor, author, pastor, and a motivational speaker. She's passionate about spreading hope and teaching. Her hobbies include biking, cultivating orchids, and exploring nature trails. She now lives in Kansas, while raising her two children. To read more, go to https://orchideria.com/about-the-author

6 thoughts on “Rice Water for Orchids: In-Depth Nutrient Analysis

  1. Excellent article. I am also using boiled and cooled rice water for my orchid plants, Phalaenopsis and found results much better.

  2. Thankyou so much for your in-depth analysis on rice water for orchids. I have been using on my phalaenopsis and have found they are all producing flowering spikes. The leaves also look healthier.

    I would like to try on cymbidiums. Dendrobiums and other orchids too.

  3. I only use rice water to water my orchids. My orchids continue to grow and bloom and are very healthy. I was washing my rice (Jasmine) and using the water, but found it was not enough to water all my orchids. I changed things up with cheese cloth and containers to get the amount of water I need. From my experience, rice water is all you need to keep orchids healthy. I also added a few egg shells to one of the rice water containers. I use that one once a month or so.

  4. Trying to figure out why some people use a half of potato and rice some people use lentil beans I’ve seen garlic used with rice water which ones are safe and why

  5. This is a wonderful article, and I’m delighted to have read it. However, there’s a particular section with which I’m afraid I have to disagree. You wrote: “It’s the worst type of toxic relationship possible, but all the benefits are on the orchid’s side. Once the orchid has reached a mature enough state to live on its own it can do 2 things: consume the fungus entirely turning itself into a parasite or live pacifically with the fungus and have it do all the hard work”. I think fungi would not cooperate with orchids if they didn’t benefit from it. Despite their complexity, I don’t consider them very altruistic. Orchids grow in diverse habitats, including forests, grasslands, and wetlands. By associating with orchids, fungi can access a wider range of environments. This partnership allows fungi to colonize new niches and expand their distribution. What more orchids produce abundant, dust-like orchid seeds that lack endosperm (nutrient reserves)?
    Mycorrhizal fungi play a crucial role in orchid seed germination. As orchid seeds germinate, they rely on fungal hyphae to provide nutrients. In return, the fungi benefit by dispersing their spores via orchid seeds.
    Orchids act as carriers, aiding in the fungal life cycle. Orchids often grow in challenging environments with nutrient-poor soils. Mycorrhizal fungi enhance orchids’ ability to extract nutrients from such soils. Fungi contribute to orchids’ resilience, enabling them to survive in harsh conditions. Orchids, in turn, provide a stable environment for the fungi to thrive. The mycorrhizal association between fungi and orchids has evolved over millions of years. Orchids are one of the largest plant families, with diverse species.
    Their success can be attributed, in part, to their symbiotic relationship with fungi. Fungi contribute to orchid adaptation, speciation, and ecological dominance. In summary, while orchids benefit from this partnership, fungi also gain advantages related to nutrition, habitat expansion, spore dispersal, adaptation, and evolutionary success. It’s a mutually beneficial collaboration!

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