What is a Terminal Flower Spike?
Is my Orchid Going to Die?

Occasionally, a flower spike will shoot up from the very center of the orchid, called a terminal spike. What does a terminal flower spike mean, what causes it, and what will to do now?

Terminal flower spikes are flower stems that appear in the middle or center of the crown of your Phalaenopsis orchid, hindering any more future growth, be it a leaf, a spike or further stem growth. The terminal spike appears a classic sign your orchid won’t live much longer. There can be many reasons like insufficient light (not proven), weak flower spikes, genetic mutations and anomalies.

**Please note that in some genus, like Paphiopedilums, the spikes grow from the center of the crown. This is to be expected and is NOT a terminal spike.

The outcome is mostly the same: this is your orchids way of producing one more shot at life before it knocks on the Big Greenhouse’s doors in the clouds.  In this article, you'll learn what to do and what not to do with a terminal spike.
Orchid Terminal Spike
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If a terminal spikemeans my orchid is going to die, how am I going to treat it?

Whatever you do, don't toss your orchid.
Please don’t think that a terminal spike is the end of the orchid’s life, even though it will eventually come to that.

If the terminal spike has grown slightly off to a side, the orchid might be able to reproduce a leaf to the other side, if it has optimal growing conditions.

So don’t panic and give up—at least not yet.

Let’s look at the reasons terminal spikes happen, and what can be done in each case.

What’s the normal growth pattern of flower spikes?

Flower spikes will grow to where there is most light. This is essential to know because when you are cultivating orchids, your light source will indicate where the spike will point. If you want to shape or design your spike to go left, you need to place your light off to the left. The flower spike will normally shoot off in this direction, even if the previous spikes had grown to the right.

With orchids like Phalaenopsis, which are monopodial, a central stem creates flower spikes and leaves. Flower spikes will emerge from the sides of the crown, always in between the upper and lower leaves, but never from the center of the plant.

Sometimes it is hard to tell in between a flower spike and a new areal root. If the end is a round, uniform finish, and a shinny, greenish-red color, it’s a root. If it’s slightly a different color at the tip and has rough projections that are not smooth or uniform, like stubs, then it’s a flower spike.

Either way, these projections aren't growing from the very center of the plant. When a terminal spike grows from the center of the orchid, it’s as if you’ve stabbed a skewer through the orchid’s heart. No more leaves can grow from there, since it’s taken over by the flower spike.

Why do orchids produce terminal flower spikes?

The first reason is insufficient lighting. This reason is not yet proven and just a theory. Since the flower spikes grow toward the most light, instead of heading out then up, they just cut through the center of the orchid damaging it’s stem.

If this is a plausible cause, then most likely, not just one orchid will do this, but other Phalaenopsis will as well. If you’re entire orchid collection is doing this, then it’s probably lighting.
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The second reason is not enough fertilizer.

The orchid is weak and doesn’t have enough strength to produce a well-developed flower spike. Instead of breaking through a tougher crown tissue, the flower spike will grow through weaker plant tissue, which is right in the middle.
This is also a non-proven theory. If you have not changed your fertilization methods year after year, and your orchid has always produced flower spikes from the sides of the stem in between the leaves, then something has changed for the orchid to suddenly change its methods.

If you're looking for a good fertilizer, then start with this one called MegaThrive (Affiliate Link). From there, you can branch out to more complete fertilizers. You can also look the free downloadable guide about Fertilization, which I'll link to below.

Another tip of why this theory is not proven: do all you’re fertilized Phalaenopsis orchids behave this way? Or just one? If all your monopodial orchids are sending out terminal flower spikes, and you cultivate them the same way, then yes, it could be insufficient fertilization.

A third possibility is that this orchid is genetically mutated and has an anomaly. The weaker genes that sense a survival instinct have become the stronger genes, and the orchid will not ever send out a beautiful blossom, but keep producing terminal spikes and keiki’s. I’ll explain this topic in more detail later on.

The last possibility, and probably the most likely, is that the orchid is on its last leg (or root) and knows it will die soon. Please read soon as two or three years. In order to preserve its species, it will produce a new plant, a keiki, and hope that this plant will have a better fate and future than it did.

What Happens after a Terminal Spike?

Sometimes a plant with a terminal spike will produce a keiki. Keikis are a Hawaiian term for baby orchid. I wrote an entire article on keiki’s which you can read here, if you want more information.

You need to keep this keiki on the mother plant for around eight months, but this estimate is just enough time for the orchid to do two things:

1) produce new roots, at least three or four, and

2) produce two good leaves.

With a root system and leaves, the keiki can be separated from the other plant and placed in a pot by itself. (For better results, plant it with the mother plant.)

To complete the bucket-list, the mother orchid produces keikis, and probably you’ll have more than one. It’s the last chance to survive: and this is the survival genes that are recessed now go into action. Time to produce keikis and preserve the genealogy.

Keikis will form in two places: on the flower spike, or at the base, called a basal keiki. No matter where it emerges, don’t separate it from the mother plant too soon. The mother orchid will not die in the next months. It could take up to a year or two after the terminal spike has emerged.
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What Not To Do on a Terminal Spike

One common problem that new orchid growers have is that they cut the terminal spike after it has bloomed, not realizing that this was the last chance of life before kicking the bucket.

Don’t fret, because basal keikis can form, too.

Your orchid can’t produce new leaves—but it can live to produce new roots and keikis.
So in the long term, know that the terminal phase for your orchid has come. That means you can still grow it well for a few years and enjoy what it has to offer. Don’t trash it quite yet. Over the next few years, it might even produce more keikis, too.

All good things come to an end. So take lots of pictures of your orchid while the terminal spike is there and make the most of the time you have with your orchid.
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2 comments on “What is a Terminal Spike? Is my Orchid Going to Die?”

  1. Hi! Say for the sake of argument, a genetic issue is causing the terminal spike. (A shop near me is selling several with them right now). Won’t any keiki it produces have the same issue? Thanks 🙂

    1. Hi Fay,
      That is an excellent question and I really don't have an answer for you. My suspicion is that they wouldn't be genetically carried into the keikis since terminal spikes have to grow in certain conditions and the orchid "decides" to produce that spike in the middle. But then I think of arguments on the other side: if all the orchids are producing terminal spikes, then that must be the way they are... So I honestly don't know. Sorry.

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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.

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