Orchids bloom, and most people get rid of them. But if you keep your orchid, it will bloom again—so how long can orchids survive? Do they live forever, or do they age like we do?
Do orchids live forever? In practise they don’t, but in theory, orchids can live for a very long time. If your houseplant is kept in optimal conditions and isn’t subject to fungal, bacterial or viral infection, then it may live longer than you. And since keikis are strictly speaking clones, your orchid could multiply itself indefinitely, effectively living forever through these clones. In reality though, infection, sun damage, overwatering and underwatering may all kill your orchid eventually.
The guide below will first look at how long orchids live (and the difference between losing a bloom and actually dying). We’ll then look at the maximum lifespan you can expect if you provide optimal care for your orchid, how long the oldest known orchids lived, and what interesting genetics are behind the orchid’s long life.
How Long Do Orchids Live?
If you’re like most people, you probably throw an orchid away when it’s not in bloom any more. But being out of bloom doesn’t actually mean it’s dead. So, how long are potted orchids supposed to last?
Orchids can effectively live indefinitely. If they’re cared for correctly, an orchid could live for a hundred years or more.
In practise, though, that’s not necessarily the case. If you buy a new orchid today, the odds are that it will survive for about ten to twenty years. If you care for it well, it will stay healthy, but it’s likely that an issue like a viral or fungal infection will occur, or that in that time, you will accidentally overwater or underwater it. Plus, sometimes orchids seem to pass away with no real cause.
Lifespan of an Orchid vs. Blooming
Before we go on, it’s vitally important that you understand the difference between a dead orchid and an orchid that’s not blooming. When orchids first became popular, a myth took hold that an orchid that loses its flowers is dying or dead. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. As such, when we ask how long do orchids live, we’re not asking how long they’ll continuously have flowers—but how long the plant itself can survive.
Orchid blooms only last for a season or so. They then naturally dry out and drop off. In some cases, the flower spike will turn brown and dry up too, but in some cases it doesn’t and a new set of flowers will emerge from the same flower spike the next time the orchid wants to bloom.
Once the flowers fall off, your orchid will actually go through phases of growth where it grows its roots and leaves. When it grows a flower spike and produces buds, then opens them into flowers, it uses much of its water and nutrient reserves to do so. This is costly to an orchid (or to any plant), but that cost is made up for if it can then reproduce and make seeds. It’s like how having a baby and raising it is costly (to your wallet and your sanity) but it’s worth it because you can make the next generation!
But then when an orchid isn’t in its flowering phase, it can use the water and nutrients it gets for other purposes. It can grow new leaves, and grow new roots or extend old ones. You may notice a small new leaf coming from your orchid’s crown, or one or two green roots coming from its stem. Or, if you lift your orchid from its pot, you may see new green growth on the end of old roots.
When the next flowering phase comes along, your orchid will either grow a new flower spike or use an existing one to produce new flowers. The cycle then begins again.
How Long Can An Orchid Live?
If you’ve just bought a new orchid, and you care for it well, it will probably live for about ten to twenty years. With luck, it will survive longer, and if you’re unlucky it won’t reach ten years.
What Determines How Long Orchids Live?
There are all sorts of things that determine whether your orchid will live for a short time or a long time. Among those that we’re aware of include:
- How well you take care of your orchid. Good care will mean that your orchid lives a lot longer.
- Whether you keep them in the right pot and potting mix. Orchids need loose bark, not heavy, dense soil. Thick soil makes their roots rot.
- Whether you have any other orchids, or plan on buying more in the future. The new orchid you buy could have a fungal or viral disease that it passes on to your existing orchid, killing it.
- Whether you have any pets. Pets can knock orchids off shelves, chew on their leaves, and generally cause them stress. Stress can cause poor health in orchids.
- Whether you live in a country that’s environmentally suitable for orchids. If you live in a country which is entirely unsuitable for your plant, you’re effectively fighting to keep it alive. If your heating stops working, your air conditioner breaks down, or you accidentally leave a window open, you can kill your orchid quickly if the conditions outside aren’t suitable.
- Whether you have a stable home life. Orchids can die during house moves, by being moved around too much, or if you forget to water and feed them.
- Genetics. Orchids have genes just like we do, and your orchid’s genes will partly determine how healthy it is, how well it can deal with stress, and how long it will live.
Because we have science on our side, we may assume we know everything there is to know about our orchids (or pets, or kids!) But that’s not true. There’s still plenty we don’t understand. So by dumb luck, There may be lots of other things that shorten or lengthen an orchid’s life which you may meet, or may not meet, by accident.
The Orchid Life Cycle
What’s interesting about orchids is that once they reach a certain stage in their life cycles, the life cycle continues indefinitely.
All orchids begin life as tiny germinating seeds. Orchids, like other plants, produce seeds. When these seeds are released from their seed pods, they’re small enough that they can float on the breeze—but they don’t want to go anywhere and everywhere. Orchid seeds do well in crevices in tree bark, where they meet a fungus they form a symbiotic relationship with. The fungus acts like a potting medium, holding onto nutrients and water which the orchid takes advantage of. The seeds then sprout and eventually become tiny orchids.
Once the orchid reaches this point, though, it carries on the same cycle throughout its life. It will grow new leaves and roots; then, it will grow a flower spike. Then, its flower spike will die, and it will be dormant for a while. Eventually, it will start making new leaves and roots again. As new leaves and roots grow, old leaves and roots will naturally die, which is nothing to worry about.
The orchid will continue this cycle for as long as you care for it, or until it’s interrupted by something like pests or infection.
Do Orchids Live Forever?
It’s theoretically possible for orchids to live forever, although in some ways, whether it’s the individual orchid actually living forever depends on your perspective. So, to start with, it’s possible for a plain old orchid to live for a very long time. It does this by continually growing new leaves and new roots, effectively erasing damage over time.
In the real world, though, no orchid has lived forever. Wild orchids obviously face environmental threats: herbivores that want to eat them, for example, and habitat changes. These habitat changes aren’t even necessarily related to global warming, as sometimes the light level in an area can be changed by the growth of trees, for example.
And as for household orchids, people don’t tend to view them as plants that last forever anyway. A family will plant a tree in the yard and perhaps expect it to be there in fifty years, but nobody buys an orchid and expects the same thing. And most people throw their orchids away when they go out of bloom anyway (even though a healthy orchid will co
What’s The Oldest Orchid Ever?
Unfortunately, there’s no oldest orchid in the Guinness book of world records. That may be partly because few people have ever wondered how old the oldest orchid is. But it could also be due to how difficult it is to tell how old an orchid is.
We can be fairly sure, though, that the oldest orchids in the world have lived for longer than a hundred years. Take this huge example of a tiger orchid from the Singapore Botanic Gardens. It was planted way back in 1861, making it older than a century-and-a-half. It’s even shown in picture postcards from a century ago, proving how old it is.
As for household orchids, there really is no telling. People claim that they’ve kept orchids for decades, but of course that’s difficult to prove, and nobody’s ever actually found the person with the oldest confirmed orchid. If you’ve got an orchid that’s particularly old, please let us know in the comments section below!
HOW Do Orchids Live Forever?
Orchids go through phases of regeneration, both on the large scale and the small. Some of this regeneration you can see in the form of new leaves, new roots and new flower spikes. Another form of regeneration takes place on a microscopic scale through the medium of DNA repair. Taken together, this renewal can help your orchid live for a very long time—longer even, maybe, than you.
New Leaves & New Roots
The orchid life cycle repeats itself from the time it becomes fully grown. After the orchid is germinated and becomes a recognizable, if small orchid, it does the same things year in and year out. It produces new roots and leaves, produces flowers, and has periods of dormancy too.
These new leaves and new roots are what make an orchid able to live for a long time. Provided you cared for your orchid properly, these new leaves will be healthy, shiny and free of disease. In this way, orchids can outgrow problems like sun damage just by making new leaves, effectively regenerating like Doctor Who.
The exact same applies to roots. Roots can easily be damaged in many ways. But as it grows, your orchid produces more and more to replace any that it loses.
I think that people take plant life for granted. We love animals that can do things like regrow lost tails, and if we found an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon rainforest who could replace lost limbs by growing new ones, we’d obviously be in awe of a genuine medical miracle. But that’s essentially what orchids do when they grow new roots, new leaves and new flower spikes!
Plants & Telomerase
This section is going to be heavy on science—so if that’s something you’re not interested in, skip ahead!
Both plants and animals have things in their DNA called telomeres. The telomeres are like the caps at the end of each DNA strand, which stop it from unravelling and getting damaged. Each time the DNA replicates itself, the telomere gets slightly shorter. This isn’t a big problem on a short timescale, as the telomeres are very long. But as they get shorter and shorter—as we age from young to old—it becomes easier for the DNA to get damaged. It’s thought that this may be the causative factor behind the aging process, a large part of which is driven by damage to DNA and cells.
But before you lose all hope, both plants and animals have things called telomerase in their cells as well. The point of telomerase is to reverse this damage by making the telomeres longer again. Our cells don’t contain enough telomerase to completely prevent the aging process, and nor do those of plants.
What’s interesting, though, is that telomerase is present in certain tissues more than in others. It’s particularly abundant in areas where there’s new tissue that can grow to form new things. Can you see where this is going?
According to the journal FEBS Letters, ‘telomerase activity in plants is restricted to highly proliferative tissues and the germline’. In plain English this means that when an orchid produces a flower spike, the tissue that can/will become a new keiki is teeming with telomerase. This telomerase can repair damage to the DNA that will go on to become your ‘new’ orchid.
Now, there obviously haven’t been any studies that specifically prove how orchids and their keikis repair DNA damage. But these findings are interesting, and could explain why orchids and their keikis can survive so long.
How to Make an Orchid Live Forever
There’s no substitute for good care and appropriate orchid-growing conditions. By keeping your orchid at the right temperature and humidity, in a location with the right amount of sunlight, and where they will be unaffected (or at least relatively unaffected) by fungi and bacteria, your orchid can live for a very long time.
There’s also another sense in which an orchid could live forever—by producing keikis. An orchid keiki is a clone of the ‘parent’ orchid—no other orchid is involved in producing it. Orchids can make seeds and reproduce like any other plant, but they can also make keikis without the input of any other plant, without pollination, and even without your help.
In a way, it depends on your viewpoint whether a keiki is the same plant as its parent orchid. But if you look at it from a scientific viewpoint, they are. Let’s say that when you’re 18 years old, you buy your first orchid. A year or two later, you make it produce a keiki from its flower spike. You then keep the keiki and throw the original plant away. A few years later, you do the same thing… And a few years later, the same thing again. If you did this your entire life until the age of eighty, the orchid you’re left with will still have the same genetic material as the orchid you started with. You could continue this cycle indefinitely, and barring acts of God and housefires, that orchid could live forever. Biologically speaking, it would be the same plant.
Do Orchids Eventually Die Even If You Care For Them Properly?
While it’s hypothetically possible for an orchid to live forever, in reality, yours probably won’t! That’s because even with good care, different issues can affect your orchid.
Viruses are a good example of a problem that can strike even if you think you’ve done everything right. You can accidentally introduce viruses to your orchids when you buy a new orchid, for example, or by using a tool on one orchid and then another without cleaning it before you do. Or, your orchid could catch a virus from its environment in an open cut that you made, e.g. to get rid of a rotten root or sun-damaged leaf. The same applies to bacterial and fungal infections, but viruses are particularly hard to prevent.
Beyond that, there are all sorts of environmental factors that could kill your orchid even if you’re careful. Your area may have an exceptionally sunny day that gives your orchids extensive sun damage, for example. Or, your cat could knock your orchids over and cause them lasting damage. Or, you might experience a housefire and not have time to run back inside to rescue your orchid collection! There’s no way to avoid every single situation like this that may occur, meaning that in practise, your orchid probably won’t live forever.
How to Ensure Your Orchids Live Longer Than You!
Sometimes there’s a lot of truth in an old cliche. Here’s one: there’s safety in numbers. If you want to pass an orchid on to your children or grandchildren, we recommend growing lots and lots of keikis. It’s like hedging your bets: one of them might get sick and die, but in among the big group of keikis you’ve created, most of them will survive! And if they do, you can proudly pass on what is essentially the exact same orchid you started with.
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