Planned Obsolescence: A Sad Trend in Orchid Sales

“Just throw away your old orchid! I can offer you a new one at an unbeatable price!” Ill.: iclipart.com & pngtree.com, montage: laidbackgardener.com

Comment: I bought 5 orchids last year. They were cute enough at first, but I soon found one had mealybugs and it’s been in isolation ever since. And all were planted in densely compacted moss and in transparent soft plastic pots with just one drainage hole in the bottom! As can be expected, the roots eventually started to rot. The leaves also started rotting, so I cleaned the plants up, trimmed off all the rot and repotted them into larger orchid pots using a bark and styrofoam mix designed for orchids. They seem to be recovering, so I think I’ve been able to save them!

But my question is: why do merchants sell orchids in such a state? 

G. Prevost

Answer: Because they think they can get away with it!

It’s sad to see that orchids, once considered to be the queen of flowers and truly treated with respect, are now regarded as little more than a disposable commodity by some merchants, like lettuce or melons. “Just buy them and toss them when they’re no longer attractive,” they suggest.

Orchid crammed into a small pot of sphagnum.
Orchids are often crammed so tightly into small pots that the roots have no room to grow. Photo: elephantschild.typepad.com

Let me make it clear, though, that not all orchid growers treat their customers like ignoramuses by selling them orchids that are destined for the compost pile: some do have credibility and offer a quality product. But others—too many!—have taken the bait and work at producing orchids in such as way as they won’t be likely to live long. Then the consumer buys a new one … and that increases the possibilities for the merchant to make a good profit.

This throwaway orchid culture is therefore essentially planned obsolescence, that is, deliberately reducing the lifespan of a product in order to increase its replacement rate. By the definition of this type of merchant, if an orchid lasts at least 4 weeks, you got your money’s worth. It’s time to throw it away and buy a new one.

Yet any self-respecting orchid lover will tell you that a well cared for phalaenopsis (and almost any other orchid) can last for years – 5, 10, 15, even 35 and more—and bloom annually, or even more than once per year. What a difference in attitude!

I touched on this topic previously in a blog a few years back, The Life Expectancy of Houseplants, although the comments then weren’t specific to orchids.

How Merchants Ensure an Orchid Dies Slowly

Watering orchids with ice cubes
There are several ways to help ensure an orchid goes downhill once it leaves the store, including watering it with ice cubes. Photo: accionph.com

Here are a few methods that profiteering nurserymen apply to reduce the long-term survivability of orchids:

  • Plant them in a pot with limited ventilation, typically a single drainage hole at the bottom. The majority of indoor orchids are epiphytes and would prefer pots with multiple perforations, even on the sides of the pot.
  • Use a fast decaying (and inexpensive) growing mix such as plain sphagnum moss, rather than a durable, quality orchid mix.
  • Pack the growing mix around the roots to prevent them from breathing properly and being able to continue their development.
  • Advise watering with ice cubes, which leaves the plant constantly on the verge of dehydration. To learn more about this, read Should You Really Water Orchids with Ice Cubes?.
  • Suggesting on the label that phalaenopsis grow well in the shade when in truth, except in the tropics, they do best in good light with, preferably, a few hours of sunlight per day. They will hold in the shade for some time; what they won’t do is to grow well or rebloom there.

How to Recognize a Quality Orchid?

Before discussing this aspect, we have put aside the size, color and quantity of the flowers an orchid bears, as they are more a question of the buyer’s taste than a sign of quality. Even the condition of said flowers can’t really be taken as an element of the plant’s overall quality, as even an excellent phalaenopsis doesn’t bloom forever and will therefore at some point stop blooming for a while. Just because a plant is between blooming sessions doesn’t make it of poor quality.

So, what should you really look for in an orchid?

First, a quality orchid probably won’t be dirt cheap! Quality comes at a price! Not necessarily a huge price, but certainly double what bargain-basement orchids sell for.

Sales area in a specialist orchid greenhouse
The very best quality orchids are usually sold by orchid specialists. Photo: www.leparadisdesorchidees.com

The place of sale matters too. Typically, the lowest quality orchids are those sold through supermarkets, hardware stores, box stores and other non-specialist dealers. Garden centers, since they have to build up repeat business for plant sales of all kinds, can’t afford to sell junk plants and usually offer at least medium-quality orchids, as do florists. However, it’s nurseries specializing in orchids that sell the highest quality ones.

? Helpful Hint: If the orchid label bears a varietal name (e.g., Phalaenopsis Pink Panda ‘Bellissima’) rather than just a generic orchid label, this is usually a sign of a merchant who knows their product and is committed to quality.

Also check that the foliage is healthy. For a phalaenopsis, it will likely be medium green, thick, leathery and relatively stiff (not soft and droopy), without wounds or dark, sunken marks.

Orchid in a transparent culture pot.
Before buying an orchid, take the grow pot out of the cachepot and inspect the roots. Photo: theraininspain.net

These days, almost all orchids are grown in a transparent grow pot (with drainage holes), placed inside an opaque cachepot, making it convenient and simple to remove the culture pot in order to inspect the roots before the purchase. They should be healthy, plump and either pale gray when dry and medium green when moist, with a long, shiny, pointed green tip. Avoid plants with dead roots, which will be brown when wet and whitish when dry. If a few aerial roots rise out of the pot, that’s okay—producing aerial roots is normal for a phalaenopsis and indeed most other epiphytic orchids.

Often, low-end orchids are simply planted in sphagnum moss, a kind of yellow-brown stringy moss. This is not inherently bad, but it is often too heavily compacted, which reduces air circulation to the roots; plus it decomposes too readily. In general, a quality orchid will be planted in a mix that includes more than one ingredient, including pieces of bark, sphagnum moss, coir, perlite, charcoal or even styrofoam beads or clay, a mix designed to keep it healthy for at least two years.

Also, inspect the plant from top to bottom for insects such as mealybugs and scale insects.

When You Get Your Orchid Home

Obviously, even a quality orchid can fail if not taken care of properly. You’ll find some tips on keeping orchids healthy here.


May all your orchids live long and prosper!!

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.

3 comments on “Planned Obsolescence: A Sad Trend in Orchid Sales

  1. The orchids at the Farmers’ Market are likely of good quality, but are used like cut flowers by the consumers. It is just how our society works. I see the same people purchasing the same quantities of blooming orchids on a regular schedule, just like others purchase cut flowers.

  2. I don’t mind that retailers have planned obsolescence. Invariably friends purchase them and when the blooms are finished and the plant invariably deteriorates, they pass them along to me. I remove them from their original container, snip off the dead roots, replant them the way you have described and in no time I have yet one more great plant for my collection. When I have too many, I often give them to someone (and often the cycle repeats as they are not cared for properly)

Leave a Reply

Sign up for the Laidback Gardener blog and receive articles in your inbox every morning!