Death is a part of life. So if you’ve owned orchids for a while, you will have dealt with dead or dying roots and leaves. But what makes orchid leaves die, and how can you tell they’re dying? And your plant will grow new leaves eventually… Right?
Do orchid leaves die? They do, in several ways. They can die of old age, from bacterial or fungal or viral infections, from sun damage, from frost damage or from pests. Leaf death is a natural part of the orchid’s life cycle, and it will grow new leaves in response to losing old ones. You can wait for the leaf to dry up and drop off on its own, or cut it off if you think it looks unsightly.
The guide below first addresses the key question of whether orchid leaves die, whether that’s normal, why they might die… And what to do with a dead orchid leaf. It will also look at whether orchid leaves grow back, whether they grow new leaves, or if they don’t grow new leaves at all. We’ll also make some recommendations on how to pull away or cut away old, dead orchid leaves so your orchid looks great again!
Do Orchid Leaves Die?
Orchid leaves die all the time. If I look over at my orchids, lined up on the windowsill of my office, maybe half of them have old, yellowed leaves at their bases. These leaves are in the process of dying—and that’s fine.
Why Does an Orchid Leaf Die?
Orchids are plants like any other, and there are lots of problems that can affect their leaves.
- Bacterial and fungal infections. When a spot gets wet, and isn’t allowed to get dry, a bacterial or fungal infection can develop there. This starts off as a small brown spot that grows bigger over time. It can eventually take over the whole of your orchid’s leaf if not treated.
- Pest damage. Pests like slugs or snails can eat an orchid’s leaves and roots. They can cause a couple of different kinds of damage: they can eat the tissue of the leaf, but leave the structure behind, making the leaf look hollow; or they can eat the whole leaf, leaving only a stump behind.
- Sun damage. Direct sunlight can burn an orchid’s leaves. Sun damage takes the form of a light brown scar surrounded by black.
- Frost damage. If an orchid leaf frosts over, that too can damage it. This can look like large light brown spots, or general brown discoloration across the whole leaf.
- Age. All orchid leaves eventually die. They first turn yellow and wrinkly, then eventually drop off.
You can tell what kind of damage affected your orchid by thinking of the context of its care. For example, was there a freak cold snap, and you accidentally left the window open? The problem would be frost damage. Does your orchid have lots of healthy leaves, and big chunky roots, but a couple of its bottommost leaves are yellow? Then the problem is going to be age.
Is It Normal for Orchid Leaves to Die?
It’s perfectly normal for orchid leaves to die. Orchids, like many plants, constantly renew themselves: as old roots and old leaves die, so too do new roots and new leaves form. As such, an orchid leaf dying isn’t necessarily a sign that anything is wrong with your plant. As stated above, the issue could simply be age.
How Long Does It Take an Orchid Leaf to Die?
There is no one answer. That’s because sometimes a leaf can die very quickly, and sometimes slowly; and not even because they’re dying for different reasons!
I’ve had orchids with leaves that turn yellow and fall off within six months. But I’ve also got an orchid which has had the same yellow leaves for probably two years now, and if I pull at them to try and remove them, they still don’t come free (indicating they aren’t completely dead).
As for other issues, pests, sun and frost can cause significant damage overnight. How quickly it kills the leaf depends on how extensive the damage is. If the problem is pests, then the pests (slugs, snails, etc.) could eat the entirety of the leaf in a week!
How to Tell When an Orchid Leaf Is Dying
The signs that an orchid leaf is dying or dead are immediately obvious. Which ones you spot depend on what kind of damage is affecting the leaf.
- Yellowing orchid leaves. Orchid leaves turn yellow as they age. This yellow is like a pale, papery yellow; not bright and vivid.
- Wrinkly leaves. Besides turning yellow, the leaves will also turn wrinkly.
- Holes in the leaf. Not always present, but signify pest damage.
- Large black spots on the leaf. Not always present, but signify sun damage.
- Large brown spots on the leaf. Not always present, but signify some kind of rot.
Sometimes certain signs of damage will be present, but they won’t be getting any worse. So, I have an orchid that had a fungal infection of some kind. She developed lots of small black spots on the top sides of her leaves and around her crown. These were spreading, and quickly, so would have taken over the whole orchid if I hadn’t acted. I used anti-fungal spray and they stopped spreading, but the small black marks didn’t disappear. I also have another orchid with sun damage on one leaf, which has been there for years.
All of this is to say that signs of damage don’t necessarily mean the orchid is dying, so long as the problem isn’t getting worse. Both of these orchids have since grown new leaves, bloomed, and shown that they’re healthy enough at least to survive!
Do Orchid Leaves Grow Back?
Orchid leaves don’t grow back in the sense that you might imagine. Orchids definitely do grow new leaves, but once a leaf is gone, it doesn’t grow back, so to speak.
You can see this history of leaves written in your orchid’s stem. At the bottom end of an orchid stem, you should see a light-brown, papery-looking stuff wrapped around it. These are the remnants of your orchid’s old leaves. They’re dried and shrivelled up because after the leaf died, a small amount was left behind. You don’t need to remove these or trim them away.
You can therefore see that rather than growing its leaves back, the orchid simply grew new leaves.
Do Orchids Grow New Leaves?
Orchids grow new leaves throughout their lives. If you keep your orchid for a long time, so long as you care for it, it will continue to grow new leaves to replace ones that were lost.
The size, strength and health of these new leaves are testament to how well you care for your orchid. A healthy orchid’s new leaves will be big, deep green and waxy. But if your orchid is unhealthy, its new leaf will be smaller than the last ones it produced.
Where Do New Orchid Leaves Grow?
New orchid leaves grow from the crown outwards. The crown is the center of the orchid, the top of the stem. If you’re not sure where that is, place a finger on the tip of your orchid’s leaf, and run it inwards towards the point where the two topmost leaves meet. That, right there, is the crown.
You may never have seen a new orchid leaf form if you buy orchids and throw them away after they bloom. But if you keep your orchid around, and care for it correctly, new leaves will eventually form here. They come out one by one: left, right, left, right. Most of the time one leaf will grow outwards, reach its full length, then stop—and that’s it. But sometimes an orchid will start growing a second leaf right after the first.
Orchids can also grow leaves elsewhere on their ‘bodies’. Orchids can grow things called ‘basal keikis’, which are brand new orchids that grow from the stem of the orchid. The orchid typically produces these when it’s under stress, as it thinks that creating a new orchid will help it survive. As such, you may see leaves poking at unusual angles from the stem of your original orchid.
What to Do With a Dead Orchid Leaf
You have three options if your orchid has lots of dead leaves. The first is to leave it in place, and wait for it to drop off naturally. The second is to try gently tugging at it, which might be enough to make it come loose. As for the third option, do you cut off dead orchid leaves? The answer is that you can, but in many cases, you don’t need to. If the leaf has died of old age, we recommend leaving it in place until it comes away naturally; but if it was affected by a viral, fungal or bacterial infection, then you should trim it or cut it away entirely.
Will a Dead Orchid Leaf Hurt My Orchid? (Leave It)
The best thing to do with a dead orchid leaf is to leave it in place. This might not look best, but it allows the orchid to seal off the dead leaf and have it drop off naturally. This will take a while, but leaving the leaf in place over this time won’t hurt your orchid. It won’t waste nutrients and water on it (which you can see with your own eyes, since the leaf shrivels up).
Then it will either drop away on its own, or become so loose that you can pull it free with a minimum of effort. To pull the dead orchid leaf away, grasp it with a finger and a thumb towards its base. Apply gentle but consistent pressure for a few seconds to see if it comes loose. If it does, congratulations—problem solved! If it doesn’t, that indicates there’s a little life left in the leaf and that it’s not quite ready to drop off.
How to Cut Off a Dead Orchid Leaf
If you don’t want to wait, you can cut the leaf free. Because much of the leaf tissue is dead, this isn’t as dangerous as cutting your orchid elsewhere (e.g. on its roots, or on living leaves). To cut your orchid’s leaf:
- Take a sterile tool, like a single-use razorblade.
- Hold the leaf with a finger and a thumb at its tip.
- Press the razor/tool into the face of the leaf, then move it to one side of the leaf, and cut it across in a smooth motion. If you encounter resistance, don’t use force, as this can make the razor slip.
We don’t recommend using scissors to cut living leaves. But using them on dead or dying leaves is less of a problem. That’s because they don’t make clean cuts, but that’s not relevant for a dead or dying leaf. You should still probably sterilize the scissors by holding them over a flame before using them. And bear in mind that most scissors will be too blunt to make one clean cut, so you may have to make multiple smaller ones, or one big rough one.
If you’re worried about using tools, causing infections, or accidentally damaging living tissue, then just wait for the leaf to drop off.
What to Do If Your Orchid Has Lots of Dead Leaves
If every single one of your orchid’s leaves is dead or dying… You’re in a bit of a pickle! Orchids can survive without leaves, and if the issue is caused by something that can spread, then removing the leaves will prevent it. But at the same time, a partially damaged leaf can still provide the orchid with energy through photosynthesis. So, what should you do?
If your orchid has a few aged yellow leaves, but still has some healthy green ones, then I would say leave them as they are. They’ll fall off eventually on their own, and there’s no advantage to cutting them away. The same applies to conditions that won’t spread, like sun damage or frost damage. It may be unsightly, but your orchid will be healthiest if you leave the partially damaged leaves as they are.
But if the problem is that your orchid has lots of rotten leaves, you should cut them away as soon as possible. Even if that leaves your orchid with no healthy leaves, or just one, you need to actively combat issues like rot. If you leave the leaves, the problem will fester and get worse.
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