How To Repot Orchids With Air Roots

How To Repot Orchids With Air Roots

Many popular species of orchids are epiphytic plants, meaning that they grow on the trunks of trees in their natural habitat. They do not need traditional potting soil, because their roots are able to absorb moisture and nutrients from the air around them. The roots that grow from higher-up on the stem and not into the potting medium are called air roots, or aerial roots.

Although the number of air roots present on the plant is not an indication that the orchid needs repotting, it is still important to know how to properly repot an orchid that has air roots. It is imperative that no air roots are damaged during repotting, because this can affect the entire plant.

In this article, we will discuss the proper way to repot an orchid with multiple air roots, as well as some tips to ensure the process is successful. So, if you are thinking about repotting your orchid, keep reading to learn how.

Why are air roots important for orchids?

The natural habitat of most orchids is the rainforest. They live high up on the trunks of trees, their roots wrapping around the trunk to anchor themselves against the wind. They can also grow on rocks and smaller shrubs. Apart from the roots that anchor the plant, orchids also grow air roots. The anchoring roots can also absorb moisture and nutrients, but sometimes the orchid needs more, so it produces air roots that grow from higher up on the stem. These roots absorb moisture and nutrients from the rain and the air around them.

A common mistake beginner orchid owners make is cutting off the air roots because they do not like the way they make the plant look. This is a big no-no, because you are literally cutting off the plant’s lifeline. This could even cause your orchid to die.

The only reasonable situation where it makes sense to cut off an orchid’s air roots is if these roots are severely damaged or dead. The dead roots may be rotten, in which case they should be removed as soon as possible before the rot spreads to the rest of the plant. Use a sterilized knife or pruning shears to do this. Perfectly healthy air roots, however, should be left alone because your plant grew them for a reason.

Why is my orchid growing a lot of air roots?

One reason your orchid may be growing lots of air roots is if the roots that are buried in the potting medium are no longer absorbing sufficient nutrients and water because they are unhealthy. Growing air roots is the plant’s way of making up for the compromised roots in the potting medium.

Another reason your orchid is growing more air roots is that it does not feel properly secured to whatever it is attached to. The plant wants to feel stable, especially when it starts to bloom, because the weight of the flowers can make the entire plant lean to one side. The plant will sprout more air roots to balance itself so that it does not fall off the tree.

Should I bury all of my orchid’s roots in the potting medium?

No, you should not bury all of the orchid’s roots in the potting medium, because they serve different purposes for the plant, as stated above. If you bury all of the plant’s roots and if they all become rotten, the entire plant will be affected and is likely to die. Furthermore, air roots are not designed to be watered like the roots in the potting medium. They are more accustomed to absorbing moisture from the air and providing for the plant that way.

Buried orchid roots are more prone to rot because there is less air circulating in the potting medium and they are subjected to moist conditions on a regular basis.

How to repot orchids with air roots

There are some noticeable differences between the process of repotting an orchid and that of repotting other plants, but it is actually not that complicated, provided you follow certain specific requirements.

First, remove the orchid from its old spot. Be gentle to ensure you do not damage any of the roots in the pot or any of the air roots.

If, despite being careful, there are still some roots that get damaged, do not worry too much. This does happen, but do try nevertheless to keep damage to a minimum.

Remove as much of the old potting medium as you can from the roots and the pot. Discard the old potting medium, because it is not reusable. Gently remove the potting medium from between the roots with your fingers. You can also shake the roots so that the potting medium falls away.

Next, soak the plant’s roots in tepid water for 10 to 15 minutes. Soaking the roots in water will make the air roots more flexible and manageable. The water will also help to remove any small pieces of potting medium left on the roots that you were unable to remove previously.

Make sure that, while you are soaking the orchid, no water gets into the stem. This is important because letting water stagnate around the stem can cause rot. If you accidentally get water into the stem, make sure you dry it immediately with a paper towel.

By this time, the roots will be much easier to inspect, because most, if not all, are free of the old potting medium. If there are any brown or black and mushy roots, you will need to remove them using a sterilized knife or pruning shears. Remove any roots that look dead and dried out as well. The more green roots are left, the better the condition of the plant even before you decided to repot it. 

However, if most of the roots were mushy, brown or black, that means you have been doing something wrong in terms of the potting or watering of your orchid, and you will need to correct this going forward. Simply put, black and mushy roots are usually due to overwatering, while brown and dried roots mean that you have been underwatering the plant.

Once you have cleared off all of the dead and dying roots and are left with only healthy green ones, you can sterilize the remaining roots with 3% hydrogen peroxide. This is to kill any bacteria or fungi that may be on the surface of the roots. Do not use a stronger concentration of peroxide, because it might end up doing more damage than good to the plant.

After the orchid has been sterilized, it is time to repot it. If it still fits in the old pot, you can reuse this, but make sure you clean and sterilize it first.

If you are using a new pot, make sure that it has drainage holes and is only one to two sizes larger than the old pot. Using a pot that is far too large for the orchid is not good for it. More space in the pot means more potting medium is needed to make it snug, and more potting medium means more moisture is retained. This makes the plant more prone to overwatering and therefore root rot. If you can find them, clear pots are great for orchids, since they will give you a better view of the roots and you will always be aware of their state of health.

After choosing a pot, you now need to fill it with a potting medium. Start by positioning the plant in the middle of the pot. The air roots should not be buried in the potting medium because this is not what they were designed for. They should be allowed to simply grow out of the plant’s stem and remain exposed to the air. Air roots can rot when kept under the potting medium.

With the plant held in the middle of the pot, fill the spaces between the roots with potting medium and make sure the potting medium is snug but not tight or dense.

Use a potting mix that is made specifically for orchids. These mixes usually include coconut fiber, lava rocks, clay pellets, sphagnum moss and orchid bark.

Lastly, water the potting medium after repotting. Some people advise against watering the plant after repotting; either way is fine as long as the potting medium is well-draining and the pot has drainage holes.

Can I use potting soil for my orchid?

No, regular potting soil is way too dense for orchids. Because orchids are epiphytic, they like plenty of air circulating around their roots. Potting soil will end up suffocating the roots and kill the plant. Regular potting soil also holds onto water a lot longer than the orchid would like. Orchids want a potting mix that drains quickly, retaining only a little moisture for the roots. Basically, orchid potting mix does not work the same way as regular potting soil. Orchid potting mix is used mainly to hold the plant upright. Ideally, mounting is the best option for orchids, since they are more than capable of absorbing their water and nutrients from the air around them.

Conclusion

Orchids are epiphytic plants that grow naturally on the trunks of trees or on the sides of rocks. They have air roots that gather nutrients and water from the air around them, and these air roots should be handled with care as they play a very important role in the life of your precious orchids.

You will need to repot your orchid when its roots are severely damaged or when they have become crowded in their current pot.

Remove the plant from the old pot and wash off as much of the old potting medium as possible. Remove any brown, black or mushy roots, as these are dying or dead. Soak the roots with water to make them more flexible and easier to manage. Spray the healthy roots with 3% hydrogen peroxide before replanting the orchid in a pot with drainage holes, using a potting mix that is made specially for orchids. Water the plant after repotting it.

Image: istockphoto.com / Supersmario