Orchids Plant propagation Repotting

How to Recuperate a Gangly Orchid

This top-heavy, wobbly orchid with lots of bare stem should have been repotted years ago. Photo: F. Hardouin

Question: Over the years, the lower leaves of my orchid have fallen off and others have grown. However, it now has a tall, unstable stem that needs staking and any charm it once had has been lost. Should I repot it? Should I prune it? I have no idea what to do! Help!

F. Hardouin

Answer: Your orchid is a phalaenopsis or moth orchid (Phalaenopsis cv). Its growth is quite normal for a plant of its genus and in fact, it would grow to look a lot like yours does—a lengthening stem bare of lower leaves but abundantly covered in aerial roots with green leaves only on the top—in the wild. That’s because it’s a monopodial orchid and grows upward from a single growing point. And because old leaves—the lowest ones—simply die and fall off over time.

Usually, however, cultivated phalaenopsis are not allowed to grow in such an ungainly fashion, but are repotted regularly before the stem becomes too bare.

Therefore, you should have repotted your phalaenopsis every 3 years or so, planting it lower in its new pot each time by surrounding the bottom part of the stem with orchid potting mix (a special “soil” developed especially for orchids). Thus, it would have remained about the same size, with a very short and, in fact, almost invisible stem at the base.

Special Cases Require Special Treatment

But your orchid is “too far gone” for a simple repotting. It’s hard to imagine a pot tall enough and narrow enough to cover all that bare stem! So, you’ll have to try something a bit more radical to recuperate your plant. You’ll have to cut off the top and reroot it to get it back on track.

Cut the top off the orchid and reroot it. Photo: F. Hardouin

So, using sterilized pruning shears (wipe the blades with rubbing alcohol), cut the stem about 3 inches (7.5 cm) below the lowest healthy leaf. Spray the resulting cutting with a 3% hydrogen peroxide solution to sterilize the wound.

Using a clean pot of about the same dimensions as the original pot, add orchid potting mix to about 1/3 of its height. Center the stem in the pot and fill all around with mix, up to the height of the last intact leaf, so that no bare stem will be visible after you finish. If there are aerial roots that will be buried as you do this, that’s not a problem. Tamp lightly.

Most likely the cutting will be held quite solidly by the added mix. If not, it may be necessary to insert a small stake into the mix and attach the orchid to it with a twist tie. You don’t want the cutting to be able to move, as that will hinder rooting.

Now, water and, later, keep the soil slightly moist while new roots form, a process which will take several months. Since there will be few active roots to absorb the water, it’s possible you’ll only have to water every few weeks at first.

(If you keep watering the lower part of the original plant, a small orchid [keiki] may well form. If so, when it’s large enough, remove it and pot it up separately).

Over time, new roots will form on the cutting that will cling to the potting mix. And it won’t be a cutting anymore, but a fully independent young orchid plant that will resume normal growth and begin to bloom, probably within a year. 

But next time, don’t forget to repot your orchid about every 3 years! After all, restarting an orchid from cuttings is far more stressful and risky for the plant than simply repotting it!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, laidbackgardener.blog will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

10 comments on “How to Recuperate a Gangly Orchid

  1. Janice Pickwell

    I’ve been searching for a discussion about this topic of orchids getting gangly. I have one that is not that far gone yet, but is getting there. I repotted it last spring but wasn’t sure if it was okay to cut off some of the very bottom so I can get it into a pot. It’s too big and won’t fit. It sounds like it will be fine if the orchid has enough roots and to use a cut paste (or glue) on the wound.??

  2. Susan Sucha

    I just ran across your advice on this orchid (a.k.a. Audrey II) that looks a lot like one I have now except it finally laid down,…it was so tired I guess? It is probably twice as tall in the stalk as the one pictured and half way between the leaves of the orchid and the potting medium are TWO keikis sprouting off the sides. Each keiki has leaves that are 4-5 inches long. One is spiking & blooming. The mother plant has about 5 spikes and is blooming. [It was supposed to get repotted this spring before getting booted outdoors for the summer but I dislocated my shoulder and tore up my rotator cuff. My spouse did the basic care as best he could but there are many ‘needy’ orchids right now.]

    My thought is to get some keiki rooting paste and apply to the air roots around the keikis now and air layer with sphagnum for several weeks while ‘Mama’ is blooming. When all blooming is completed, will cut Mom free as you’ve shown and same with the keikis.

    However I am open to any other suggestions, products, etc.

  3. I prefer to air layer them, by wrapping them in damp sphagnum moss and a plastic bag. They don’t root solidly, but it is nice to get some roots started before cutting the stems.

  4. Alexandra Abraham

    Alternatively, because it’s an epiphytic plant and actually, when growing in its natural habitat, has no soil or potting medium, you could at a push, attach some gardening wire to a wooden pine board with U-pins and then lay the orchid on the board, poke wet/moist sphagnum moss tightly among the roots, then secure it by pulling the wires over the toots and moss, and securing them on the opposite side to where they are attached to the board, with small screw-in hooks. Let some of the roots poke out of the moss, and leave the highest roots exposed. Wet the moss thoroughly. Hang up (the orchids have a tendency to grow sideways anyway, because that’s how they grow in the wild) and spray regularly with room-temperature rain water. You’re welcome.

  5. nancy marie allen

    Good advice for regular repotting of orchids!

  6. Patricia Evans

    What if the aerial roots are too big to fit in the new pot? Do you just cut them off? I have an orchid that’s never been repotted and yet is almost always blooming. I’m afraid to repot it, even though I know it really neds it.

    • Just wrap the roots around the inside of the pot as best you can… and if you can’t do that, yes, cut them back. Getting an overgrown orchid back into shape is always a bit awkward, but at some point, you really have to do it!

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