If your orchid has no leaves, you might think it’s dead—although it isn’t quite. But how do you revive an orchid with new leaves? How can it grow, and how do you care for it?
Will an orchid survive without leaves? It can, so long as you correct what caused it to lose its leaves first. Orchids naturally lose leaves as they grow new ones, but they don’t shed their leaves each year like deciduous plants do. They will only ever lose all of their leaves if something like crown rot, leaf rot or sun damage kills them all. But since the orchid’s stem can photosynthesize to an extent, and its roots take in water and carbon, the orchid can survive and very slowly grow new leaves. It will take a long time for your orchid to recover, however: several years. As such, you may want to simply buy a new one.
The guide below first looks at how an orchid survives without leaves, whether it will grow new ones, and what it needs to grow new tissue (carbon, glucose and water). We’ll also address what do you do when an orchid loses its leaves to increase its chances of surviving. By the end, you should know how to bring an orchid back to life…
Will An Orchid Survive without Leaves?
So, let’s say you’ve had your orchid for a few years now. It has shown stunted growth: any new leaves have been smaller than its old ones, and its roots are shrivelled and old. Your orchid has now become so unwell that it has lost its final leaf, shrivelled up and yellow, and it has finally dropped off. You’re probably thinking it’s time to put your orchid in the bin.
It is possible for an orchid to survive without leaves, but only if you take drastic steps to save it. You must immediately correct whatever issue has made your orchid unhealthy, be it underwatering, sun damage or root rot. You must then tend to it carefully, checking how much you water it and how often, feeding it orchid food, and keeping it in a suitable location. If you do this for long enough, it is biologically possible for your orchid to grow a new leaf even if it doesn’t have any existing leaves.
When you think about it, it’s not too unusual for this to happen. Lots of plants lose all of their leaves each winter, but grow them back in spring. Orchids aren’t supposed to do this—they don’t lose their leaves on schedule like other plants do—but this does highlight how it’s possible for a plant to bounce back after losing leaves.
Is It Normal for Orchid Leaves to Fall Off?
Orchids lose leaves and grow new ones throughout their lives. This is a sign of good health rather than bad health.
Orchids typically have something like six to ten leaves. Often when they introduce a new pair, they get rid of an old pair at the same time. As new leaves grow, the bottom pair turn yellow and wrinkled, and eventually fall off. It’s also not entirely abnormal for orchid leaf problems to occur, be that sun damage or a small amount of rot, and these leaves may die and fall off too.
Again, your orchid isn’t supposed to lose all of its leaves. The idea is to grow a new pair, and lose an old pair, not grow a new pair of leaves and lose all of its remaining ones. So it’s normal to lose some leaves. But is it normal for an orchid to have no leaves? No.
How Can an Orchid Survive without Leaves?
There are two reasons why orchids will survive even if they don’t have leaves.
The first is that we, or at least I, almost look at my orchids as if they’re tiny pets. And if your pet lost half of its body, well… It wouldn’t quite recover! I can sometimes think of orchids in the same way, with the leaves being the top half of the body, and the roots being the bottom half. But orchids, and plants generally, don’t work like that and can survive in the absence of part of their ‘bodies’, and regrow new ‘limbs’ easily. So while it might be shocking to see an orchid without leaves, it’s not necessarily the end of the road for your plant.
The other reason is that your orchid can still generate, store and/or use the resources it needs to live even if it doesn’t have leaves.
Will My Orchid Grow New Leaves?
Orchids can grow new leaves. They do this all the time, replacing old leaves with new, fresh ones. While losing all of its leaves complicates matters somewhat, your orchid can eventually grow a new leaf or new leaves, even if it doesn’t have any now.
Orchids need several things to grow a new leaf. They need:
- Glucose/starch. Glucose is a carbohydrate made from the carbon that the plant respires, transformed in the process of photosynthesis. The plant needs this energy to live, in the same way that we need to eat food. Glucose is stored in the form of starch, and is used to create cellulose, the bricks that make up each plant cell.
- Carbon. Plants can’t photosynthesize without carbon. They also can’t grow new leaves without carbon. There’s a reason why all life on earth is carbon-based, be it a person or a plant!
- Water. Plants are mostly water, so if they can’t take in water from their environment, they can’t grow new tissue.
Fortunately, your orchid can just about get these three things through the body parts it has left: its stem, its crown and its roots.
How Do Orchids Grow without Leaves?
Orchids need three things to grow new tissue: glucose, carbon and water. They can still get these things from their environment even without leaves. This section looks at how exactly they do that.
The Stem Can Photosynthesize
So, the big problem with losing leaves is that the orchid can’t then perform photosynthesis in them. Photosynthesis is how the plant creates sugars, which it then uses to grow. Photosynthesis takes place in the chloroplast, which contains chlorophyll.
However, it’s not just the leaves that contain chloroplasts. The stem of an orchid contains them too, which is why it’s the same color as the leaves. It doesn’t contain as many, as the stem obviously isn’t as large as the leaves are, so it would be much better if the orchid still had leaves. It would be able to photosynthesize a lot more if its leaves hadn’t dropped off. But it can still do so using its limited number of chloroplasts in its stem.
As it happens, the stem contains enough for chloroplasts for the orchid at this point in time. That’s because it has far less body mass that needs glucose to support it, since it lost its leaves. So, it can’t create as much energy from photosynthesis, but it doesn’t need to create as much. It can therefore begin setting glucose aside for later use in creating new leaves, which it can then use for creating the cellulose it needs.
Much storage of glucose, in the form of starch, takes place in the leaves. But all plant cells have vacuoles, which are their central storage units. In the vacuoles, orchids store water for later use, as well as any nutrients they might need, and any spare glucose in the form of starch. Your orchid therefore has a store of energy and of water in its roots and stem that it can draw on to create new tissue.
Now, your orchid would rather not use up everything in these stores to create a new leaf. That wouldn’t be sensible. But it can add to its meagre level of photosynthesis by drawing on some of this spare glucose, which it needs to create the cellulose of the new leaf.
Orchid Roots, Carbon & Water
The other two things that the orchid needs are carbon and water. It can get these through its roots.
To start with the obvious, your orchid’s roots will carry on working even if it doesn’t have any leaves. While your orchid can take in small amounts of water through its leaves, almost all of its water comes through its root system. The roots absorb all the water that the orchid needs and sends it around its body, to its stem and, at least before, to its leaves. It also stores lots of water in the vacuoles of its root cells for later use, which is why healthy orchid roots are so large. Getting the water necessary to create a new leaf therefore isn’t a problem.
As for carbon, orchids need this for two things. The first is that they need it for photosynthesis, which the plant will still perform in its stem. The second is that roughly half of a plant is carbon, so it’s a vital part of any structure a plant wants to build, be it a root, a leaf or a flower. Plants don’t absorb carbon through their roots along with water, but through the process of respiration. This typically takes place in the leaves, which have small pores on their undersides that open and close. But it can also take place in an orchid’s roots, which have the same pores (stomata) and can therefore respire, taking in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen.
As such, an orchid relies on its roots to produce new leaves. If an orchid doesn’t have leaves or roots, though, it’s probably not going to survive.
Can You Revive an Orchid with No Leaves?
If your orchid has lost its leaves, you must help it or it will not recover. Below is a step by step guide on what to do, when to do it, and why.
1) Correct Your Orchid’s Health Problem
Orchids aren’t supposed to lose their leaves. They aren’t deciduous, so if your orchid sheds its leaves, there’s a reason why—something is wrong. You should identify what’s wrong and fix it so that your orchid can recover. There are a few reasons why your orchid might have lost its leaves:
- Sun damage. Bright, direct sunlight can scorch an orchid’s leaves. This normally leaves small scars that the orchid can live with, but it’s possible for sun damage to completely kill a leaf.
- Leaf rot. Small rotten spots can grow and get bigger, eventually taking over the entire leaf.
- Crown rot. Crown rot is like leaf rot, but in the crown—the center of the orchid—rather than somewhere else along the leaf.
- Pests like slugs or snails. Slugs, snails and caterpillars can eat orchid leaves just as they eat other kinds of leaf.
The fix is dictated by the problem. If your orchid sustained sun damage or frost damage, you should move it to a different windowsill where it won’t be damaged like that again. If your orchid has leaf rot or crown rot, you need to clean the infected area to kill the rot, and pray that it doesn’t spready further. If there are pests that are eating your orchid’s leaves, you need to kill them and repot your orchid.
This step cannot be skipped. If you do skip it, your orchid will not recover no matter what you do. It will continue to shrink, shrivel and die.
2) Carry On Watering It
While your orchid doesn’t need as much water as it did before—since it doesn’t have any leaves it needs to support—it still does need water. As such, you should continue watering your orchid as you did before. Whether you normally water your orchids by bathing them or by showering them doesn’t matter, so long as you keep doing it.
There may need to be one or two adjustments, though. Your leafless orchid won’t absorb as much water as others that do have leaves. That’s because those orchids absorb water and send them to their leaves to keep them in good shape, but your leafless one recognizes that it can’t do that, so it won’t take in as much. As such, your orchid’s pot may still be damp by the time you’re next supposed to water it. You should therefore water it less frequently or give it a little less water.
3) Carry On Feeding It
If you aren’t already, you should start feeding your orchid ‘orchid food’. Orchid food is basically a kind of fertilizer that you mix into the water you water your orchid with. It contains minerals that will boost your orchid’s growth, be that growth in the form of new roots, new flowers, or in this case, new leaves. It replaces nutrients lost when watering, or as your orchid absorbs them from its potting mix.
I’ve used a few different kinds of orchid food before, and they often have different instructions for feeding them. I find that feeding them food every other week works for me, which is an instruction that I found on the bottle, but I’ve had bottles before that say every week, or which say only in growing season. I recommend finding what works for you and doing that, and following the instructions on the bottle is probably a good start!
4) Place It Somewhere Sunny
While it doesn’t have leaves, your orchid can still benefit from being placed in the sun. Its stem will still perform a low level of photosynthesis, creating sugars it can store for later, until it has enough to make a whole new leaf. As such, you won’t do your orchid any favors by moving it away from its old windowsill.
You should only consider moving it if, perhaps, the place it was before was part of the reason it lost its leaves. So, for example, if it was getting too much sun or not enough where it used to live. If that’s the case, you should put it somewhere more suitable.
Can You Revive an Orchid with No Roots, No Leaves Or No Crown?
If your orchid is damaged or unwell in some other way in addition to having no leaves, it’s almost certain that it won’t survive.
Orchid Crown Rot (No Leaves)
So, orchids can survive without leaves; but if your orchid’s crown or roots are rotten, and it has no leaves, then it will gradually die.
Damage to the crown is especially serious. The crown is the point in between the orchid’s topmost two leaves, and it’s where new leaves emerge from. If an orchid doesn’t have a crown, or its crown is damaged somehow, it physically can’t grow any new leaves unless it grows a keiki. It’s also likely that the rot which damaged the crown will continue on through the orchid’s stem, killing it entirely.
If that’s the case for your orchid, you can try, if you like, to revive it. But it’s unlikely that you’ll find any success. You may as well give it a go, because you don’t need to buy any special kit or spend an awful lot of time caring for an orchid with no leaves; much of its care will continue as it was before, e.g. watering and feeding, so it’s no extra effort on your part.
Orchid Root Rot (No Leaves)
Root rot is slightly less serious as it’s more easily corrected. It’s the same problem as crown rot, just in a different place: the roots instead of the crown. Rotten roots can be trimmed away, which you can’t do with crown rot, and if you do then your orchid should recover.
But if your orchid has no leaves, and it has root rot that you don’t correct, then again, it will gradually die. Your orchid needs its roots to breathe in carbon dioxide, to absorb water, and to serve as its store of both water and energy. If it has no roots, it can’t absorb water or carbon, which will serve as two of the chief ingredients of newly grown tissue. If it can’t make new tissue, it won’t grow new leaves. It would therefore be time to throw the orchid away.
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