Orchid care: cutting the flower spike

Anyone who knows me would say that orchids are my favourite flower, and they would be right. They grow wild in my country of birth, Brazil, they provide prolific and long-lasting blooms, and they offer the owner a good challenge. This gorgeous pot of four phalaenopsis, or moth orchids, was given to me as a gift back in early February, and is still in bloom.

cutting_orchid_stem_1

Most often I notice people leave the flower stems on the plant until they become a brittle dead branch. It seems to be the biggest mystery – what do I do when the flower stems start dying? The main answer is, don’t throw the plant away!

You can see in the middle of the shot above that there are a few blooms fading. Here is another view of the fading stem that hasn’t died all the way back yet.

cutting_orchid_stem_2

The plant is still feeding the stem, and is using energy to push nutrients and water all the way up to the dying flowers. Cutting a stem when it is fading can redirect the energies and force out a new flower shoot. Cut it above a healthy looking node that still looks alive. This one is the second from the bottom, being cut with my uber-sharp Masakuni shears.

cutting_orchid_stem_4

With a little luck, you will soon have a new flower shoot like these two examples below. But if not, don’t be disappointed. If the stem dies all the way back, cut it to the bottom and with good care you will get another shoot from the base of the plant, although it can often take a few months.

cutting_orchid_stem_5

cutting_orchid_stem_3

It is helpful to remember that in their natural habitat, orchids grow in trees under a canopy and obtain their water through the air. That goes a little way to help explain the various things to keep in mind when growing orchids:

– orchids love bright but, crucially, indirect sunlight
– they like a permanent home, so may be unhappy at first – resist moving often
– they should be planted in bark and never soil, which rots the roots
– orchids want moisture, but never to be waterlogged – water sparingly
– there is no hard and fast watering rule, as conditions vary so much
– when watering, allow water to run freely through the pot, or mist regularly
– orchids require feeding, but sparingly – read the orchid food label
– exposed roots are okay, but re-pot if bark breaks down or plant outgrows pot
– a slight drop in evening temperature over 2-4 weeks can trigger new flowering

This is certainly not an exhaustive study on orchid care, and it is biased towards the phalaenopsis family as it is the easist to grow and most prolificly sold. Orchid care varies by family and for anyone interested in more information I would recommend The Orchid Expert, an inexpensive and simple guide to growing orchids.

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17 responses to “Orchid care: cutting the flower spike

  1. The tips on growing orchids are quite useful. I just got two of them from Malaysia (phalaenopsis) which were sealed in a plastic case and enclosed by jelly. Washed off the jelly, place the two small orchid plants in sphagnum moss with some charcoal (I understand it prevents rotting) and have placed them in indirect sunlight. Am keeping my fingers crossed!

  2. This post is really useful to me. I have two Orchids, both of which have stopped flowering. I did as you suggested and cut back to a node, but they have not produced any more flowers. I didn’t know what to do next, so this post is just the job!

  3. I am so glad a Google search directed me to your site. I could not find a useful explanation of dead branches anywhere. Thank you. Off to trim some brittle brown branches.

  4. I have a phal. orchid that has a shoot on a stem and is growing new leaves about 1/2 way up the stem. Do I cut it off and plant as a new one or will it flower from the stem or ?
    Thank you

    • Hi Debbie, great to hear your stem has shoots. In my experience a shoot off the stem is a new off-shoot of flowers, and should be left on to bloom. Good luck and don’t forget to give it some bloom feed.

    • Hi Debbie, I have the same thing occuring with my orchid. Did you get any advice?

      Appreciate hearing from you.

  5. I have several orchids where there are big green roots (or greenish grey for older ones)growing completely out of the pot. Do I repot and try to shove them in, cut them off or leave them there?

    • Hi Robin – whatever you do, don’t cut! In the wild, orchids grown around trees, so they are used to getting their water and nutrients from the humid air of the jungle. The last thing they like is a wet, soggy habitat. I think the nice green or greyish roots coming out of an orchid are part and parcel of growing the species. On occasion I will snip out the dry, dead roots, but the succulent ones should be very much kept.

      Good luck!

  6. I have an oncidium that I got from Lowes a couple years ago and blooms nicely. Now there seems to be a completely new plant coming off of a stem about 4 inches up. It is putting out new green/white roots, some nearly 2 inches long by now, where it is attached, along with growing new leaves on the new stem. Do I remove this “new” plant and put it into a pot by itself? If so, when? Thanks.

  7. Thanks for your pictures of the reblooming orchid. I have been looking all over the place for an explanation and yours was very easy to understand!!

  8. I’ve had my orchid for more than a year and after the flowers died it remained without flowers a long time. To encourage flowers I snipped off the stem above a node half way up the stem and for the last month have been feeding it orchid fertiliser. Some time later a new shoot appeared which developed into two leaves. This looks odd having leaves at the base and now leaves half way up the stem. Next to the new leaves is what looks like a root growing. Can I cut the stem below upper leaves and replant? or do I have to leave it as is?

  9. Wow nice post, cool orchid care tip. Thank you for sharing a very helpful tip. Nice pictures by the way. Thank you.

  10. I have kept my orchids for about 3 years and I love the occasional re blooms. I have the greenish ‘out of the pot’ roots that were asked about by Robin and what looks like dead ones in the the pot visible amidst the orchid potting mix. Your reply mentioned occasionally cutting the dried roots. Can you talk more on this? one of mine is real tilted with the leaves one way and all the roots the other. So, how often should I repot? can roots be cut back, which ones and how much. And what percentage should be out of the orchid potting mix to simulate tropical forest. Is the orchid mix too wet if I just soak and drain them off once a week?

  11. I experienced, what a lot of others had with the same problem- a small cluster of leaves (the starting of a new orchid base) somewhere along the stem. Mine was at the very top of the stem (8 inches from original plant base). No expert seemed to be willing to give clear insightful advice. So I am posting what I found to work on all of these orchids sites remaining adviceless. I found the below directions from eHow.com , after much searching. It was my own conclusion that at sometime or another the new sprout would have to become it’s own plant. I grow cacti, outdoor flowers, and herb gardens, so my only original advice would be to wait for the roots to have a healthy growth off the stem, at least 3/4 in to 1 inch, before you seperate. That way they will have a good founding root system before the seperation occurs- based on my work with cacti. I especially agree with the advice from eHow and repot the new growth in the same material the original pot, because all plants like to continue to thrive in the same nutrients as the parent.

    “When a sympodial orchid grows a pseudobulb that extends beyond the capacity of its pot, the orchid should be re-potted and the pseudobulb removed and potted as a separate plant. Plant the pseudobulb in a potting medium similar to what it grew in originally.”

    Read more: Orchid Care & Propagation | eHow.com http://www.ehow.com/about_6369679_orchid-care-propagation.html#ixzz1HqaASJtj

  12. Thank you for the information as it would have been very useful once I saw my plant start to brown. But I waited and to this day still have not cut it. It now has the waxy leaves that are on the bottom gone and new ones have grown toward the top… The stem is still looking worse and worse. If there is any advise you can give me please contact me. Thank you.

  13. I have an orchid of a few years now and blooms nicely. Now there seems to be a completely new plant coming off of a stem about 9 inches up. It is putting out new green/white roots, some nearly 2 inches long by now, where it is attached, along with growing new leaves on the new stem. Do I remove this “new” plant and put it into a pot by itself? If so, when? Thanks.

  14. Hi there,

    I made the mistake of completely cutting of the spikes at the very base of the plant so my orchid is now just the green leaves.. no spike or stem remaining.. I did this over a year ago. The plant is still alive and I just recently repotted it. Shouldn’t new spikes be growing by now? I’ve seen advice on how to cut spikes right above the nodes, but I obviously went too far. How long before I should see some growth?

    Thanks,
    Ari

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