How To Grow Orchids In Water
The idea of growing plants in water sounds like something that requires high-level technical know-how, even more so when applied to a plant like an orchid, which is generally known for its strong aversion to prolonged exposure to water.
However, you don’t necessarily need to have the skills of professional growers to grow plants or flowers at home using water media. Perhaps you saw a beautiful orchid garden at a friend’s, and you would like to create one in your home as well, or you’re already a flower garden enthusiast and would like to add even more beauty to your collection while trying to avoid the cost of getting new plants or paying professional orchid growers to propagate new ones for you.
It’s important to say that if you can afford it, you should enlist the help of a professional when trying to propagate horticultural plants (especially terrestrial orchids) at home using unconventional means. However, if you simply want to learn by yourself, then this article is your beginner’s guide. Here, I’ll be walking you through the steps involved in growing orchids at home using only water.
Growing Orchids In Water – Can It Be Done?
The answer is yes, some orchids can be grown in water media only. There are different types of orchids, but these specific types that can be grown in water are usually epiphytic orchids, and they make up about 70% of all types of orchids. The term “epiphytic” means that these plants grow on other plants, but do not survive off of them in a parasitic manner. This trait gives them an upper hand in natural environments.
Epiphytic orchids are otherwise called water orchids, and they are most commonly grown indoors. Some of them include Dendrobium, Vanda, Phalaenopsis orchids (moth orchids), Epidendrum, Cattleya orchids, Catasetum, Paphiopedilum, and Oncidium.
Now, it’s important to note that although these orchids can grow indoors on water media, there are specific requirements that must be fulfilled for their growth to be successful. Some of these orchids are not native to the U.S., so their growth already requires special care.
Let’s start with the first thing to note when trying to grow an orchid in water: the method of propagation.
How to Propagate an Orchid
There are different ways to propagate an orchid, but the method of propagation chosen depends on the type of orchid you want to propagate. Different orchids have different methods of propagation. You have to discern which method of propagation works best for the type of orchid you’re trying to grow.
Here are six different methods of propagating an orchid:
- Propagation by Division
- Back Bulb(s) propagation
- Aerial root and stem cuttings
- Meristem culture/Tissue culture
- Propagation by Seed
Only two of these methods can be applied when propagating an orchid for home grooming in water media. These methods that can be used at home are the Keiki(s) and aerial root/stem cutting methods.
Propagation by Keiki(s) is a method of propagation unique to phalaenopsis (moth) orchids, so this method can be applied if the orchid you’re trying to propagate is a moth orchid. For the other types of epiphytic orchids, however, propagating by root and/or stem cuttings is the best method. It is not only applicable to multiple orchid species but also the fastest, with fresh growth in a few months. It is a great way to propagate an orchid at home.
Aerial roots are common when an orchid grows in the wild (on trees or other plants). Orchids, being epiphytes, grow these plants’ roots in order to attach themselves to other trees around them. Aerial roots can also grow in potted orchids.
However, for indoor plants and home gardens, aerial roots on potted orchids are usually trimmed off to increase the plants’ beauty. They are more visually appealing without it. Orchid plants purchased for indoor growth or home gardening have most likely been modified this way.
In the absence of aerial roots, the next best thing to do is to propagate by stem cutting. Not all orchids have aerial roots, but all orchids have stems. Now, let’s move forward with the propagation of an orchid using stem cuttings.
Orchids Water Propagation by Stem Cutting
Before cutting, be sure to note that you’re picking out a developed orchid stem, and not a leaf or flower stem of the orchid. On a developed orchid, stems usually have both flowers and leaves attached to them. Here are some images of a developed orchid stem:
The stem to be cut should be between 25 to 30 centimeters long.
- Ensure the cutting tool has been disinfected and is sterile. This is to prevent fungal infection on the propagated stem.
- Check for multiple nodes on the stem of choice. These nodes are the points where new orchids will grow once they’ve been replanted.
- Cut the stem near the base of the orchid.
- You can further cut the stem into smaller parts, as long as the smaller pieces contain at least two nodes.
Be sure to apply an antifungal (like cinnamon or charcoal) to the cut end(s) of the stem(s). This is also a precaution against fungal infection of the propagation stems.
Root The Orchid Stem In Water
The next step is to root the newly cut orchid stem in water. Rooting is done for orchid stems so they’re not completely exposed to the water media. You can view rooting media as a sort of anchor, so the orchid stem does not simply drift awkwardly in the water.
Good rooting media can be one of three: hydro clay pebbles (commonly called leca pebbles), sphagnum moss, or tree bark. All three rooting media can be easily found or purchased. They’re also easy to use.
- Sphagnum Moss: Wrap it around the cut orchid stem, and then give it a gentle, good soak with water. You can soak it with fresh water, tap water, or distilled water, but be sure you’re using clean water when soaking. The idea is to make the moss damp, so drain all excess water away before wrapping it around the stem cutting. Now insert the stem cutting into a propagating glass container.
Note: If you choose to cut your stem cutting into smaller parts with fewer nodes, you might want to use a rooting tray together with sphagnum moss. Once the moss has been properly dampened, lay it out uniformly in the tray. Set each stem cutting evenly on the moss, and then spray gently with much water. Use plastic wrap to cover the tray to retain its humidity. Puncture holes evenly in the plastic wrap to allow the culture to breathe before placing it in a cozy location with a low light level.
- Clay (Leca) Pebbles: Be sure to get ample pebbles that cover more than half of the container you use for propagation. If your container is a clay pot, you can fill it to the brim with clay pebbles. Water the pebbles sparingly; once every two to three weeks. This is because clay pebbles can hold and retain water for long periods, so you don’t have to water the plant too often.
- Tree bark: You would need an average long piece of tree bark. Cut to size, but let it be between 2–4 inches longer than the stem cutting. Tie it to the stem cutting, then place it in the propagating container. If you’ve chosen to use tree bark, you should fill the container with enough water, perhaps to the brim.
Orchids in Water Best Growth Practices
Once you’ve successfully rooted your orchid stem cutting in water, there’s not much work left. You don’t have to do much to facilitate the orchid’s growth, but because of the special condition in which your young tropical plants are growing (water media), it’s important to take note of some management practices that can increase the chances of successful growth.
Maintain Daytime Temperatures and Humidity Levels
It’s important to keep the new plants in a cool place. Orchids grow well in humid conditions, specifically in places with relative humidity ranging from 50% to 70%. If you feel your home is lacking in humidity, one of the easiest ways to increase the humidity is to group several young plants in the same place you’ve planted your orchids.
Orchids are also highly sensitive to too much light. Do not place them under direct sunlight, to avoid raising the temperature too high and “cooking” them alive. If you’re using a rooting tray, keep the average temperature surrounding the tray between 23° and 30° Celcius. Remember to mist them regularly so they have enough moisture.
Fertilizer Application and Supplements
Some orchids can grow without any external help from fertilizers, plant growth hormones, or rooting supplements. Still, you can add these to increase the chances of growth. If you choose to aid the growth of the plant with external materials, be sure to apply supplements specific to orchids.Note: If you intend to add rooting hormones or supplements, you should add them before rooting the plant, according to the application instructions of the supplement you have purchased.
Since you’re using water as the growing medium, the growth of weeds is far-fetched. You’re unlikely to find weed growth if you rooted your plant with tree bark or wrapped it with sphagnum moss. Weed growth is perhaps most likely to occur in plants rooted with clay pebbles, but can be easily prevented once appropriate environmental conditions are maintained.
As the plant grows, an aerial root system can develop, especially in plants rooted with clay pebbles. You can trim both the new roots and old roots as you deem fit, but be sure to get rid of any yellow leaves, root rots, or outgrowths on the new orchid that exhibits symptoms of a disease. You can find more growing guides for different species of orchids here: moth orchids and cattleya orchid care
Growth Period: How Long It Takes and What You Can Do To Speed It Up
Orchids are perennial plants in their native habitats, which means they’re normally supposed to take several years to develop fully. This is true for most of the other propagating methods, such as propagation by division or back bulbs.
Growth can be noticed on the nodes of the plants in a matter of weeks (6 weeks and about), while more pronounced development, such as those involving new orchid flowers, can be seen in a few months. Below is an image of a stem cutting propagated in water using tree bark after six months:
The amount of time it takes for growth could vary, sometimes stretching as long as a year before considerable results can be witnessed. If you want to speed the growth process up, then it’s a good idea to properly apply rooting hormones and supplements before the rooting process, as well as maintain consistency in fertilizer application. This, along with proper temperature regulation and the absence of infections and/or root rots, will have your orchids blooming in a matter of months.
Transplanting The New Orchid
After patiently tending to your stem cutting(s) for between a few months to a year, it’ll be about time to transplant the growing orchid plant into its pot so it can grow into a full-fledged orchid.
First, you have to be sure that your plant is ready for transplant. There are several ways to tell when your plant has reached the transplanting stage. These include:
- Root Length: Measuring the root growth on the stem cutting can help tell if the orchid is ready for transplant. If the orchid roots have attained a growth length between 5 and 7 centimeters (or more), then yes, they’re just about ripe for transplanting.
- Leaf and/or Flower Growth: If the stem cutting has developed at least two new leaves or two new orchid flowers growing off it, it’s a clear indication that it’s ready for transplant.
- New Orchid Sprout: This is perhaps the most evident sign of readiness. If an entirely new orchid sprout has begun to stem off the original cutting, then yes, you should proceed to transplant it into new soil as soon as possible.
Before transplanting the growing plant, it’s important to ensure that certain requirements for the continued growth of the plant are met. These could be:
- The size of the New Pot: A new orchid pot must be correctly sized in contrast to the new plant. A large pot should not be used for a small plant, and a small pot should not be used for a large plant.
The average width of the pot for a new transplant is between 10–15 centimeters wide. Ensure that the pot conveniently houses the new plant, irrespective of the commonly acceptable measurements.The mixture of Potting Media: Proper composition of the potting media when choosing new soil is paramount. Orchids, being largely epiphytic in their natural habitats, don’t grow on soils in the first place, so using average soils will not facilitate growth for the new plant.
Thus, an appropriate potting medium for the growing orchid plant must be similar to that which it grows on in the wild: on the bark of trees, with a mixture of moss and organic matter. Some other types of potting media to include in your growing mix are redwood bark, fir bark, cork, tree fern, charcoal, Rockwool, polystyrene foam, and sand.
For best results, purchase a suitable orchid potting mix before transplanting. There are different kinds, but any should work fine as long as it is peculiar to orchids.
- The New Pot’s Drainage Ability: The new pot should have a very good drainage system. Although the new orchid plant was cultured in water, orchids don’t grow well when their roots are immersed in water for too long.
Since there is no way to tell the water level of the pot before or after watering, it is important to choose a pot with adequately spaced drainage holes, so all excess water in the pot is drained out and the soil in the pot is not waterlogged, allowing for good air circulation in the new roots.
Once all the conditions for transplanting have been fulfilled, you can go ahead with the transplanting process itself.
- Cut off the greater part of the stem below the new orchid, leaving only about an inch of the stem intact.
- In the new pot filled with potting media, spread out the plant’s roots as you place them in the pot, and then cover the exposed roots with sphagnum moss to prevent quick desiccation of the roots.
- Water the plant gently for the next few days following the transplant. Keep the temperature consistent as well, between 18°–23° Celsius. Consistent temperature is important for the plant as it acclimates to its new environment.
Growing orchids from home in water media is a very patient process. It’s not difficult, but you do have to be diligent. Just keep to the steps detailed above, rather specifically, and it’s only a matter of time before you can call yourself not only a lover of orchids but a proud grower of them.
Orchids take their time in getting used to new environments, but as long as the conditions for proper growth are met, they will unfailingly sprout beautiful flowers with time, and greatly improve the beauty of your home.