Orchids are popular, partly because they’re beautiful & interesting, but also because most kinds sold in stores are fairly easy to care for. That said, nearly every orchid owner questions how often to water their orchids.
Although each species of orchid differs, a good rule of thumb is to only water when the media begins to dry out. Soaking an orchid’s growth substrate is not a good idea. It’s much better to maintain a moist soil, rather than giving large amounts of water at one time.
Not all orchids are as easy as that however, and if you’d like to be very specific to your orchid’s preferences, you may need to do a bit more reading to learn what’s optimal for your specific orchid variety.
Below is a summarizing table for the information above.
If you’re curious, check out the complete article on how to propagate orchids.
How much water orchids get in the wild
In the tropics the atmosphere is humid and steamy. Jungle or rain forest biomes have rain descending on them frequently, sometimes every day in certain parts of the year. As you might imagine, the orchids in those areas of the world are used to the high-water levels and humidity. At night, the humidity levels drop a bit in the tropics, cooling down in temperature as well.
The orchids from the tropics usually grow in trees, also known as being epiphytic, which means that they don’t have contact with the water that is on or in the ground, but rely solely on rain water and water that evaporates from the forest floor. Many of the orchids from tropic regions also have deep leaf nodes, which allows them to trap water in their leaves and channel it to their roots.
Their roots dangle free in the air, so any air saturated with water is used as a means of staying hydrated. The rain would obviously fall directly on the roots as well for these orchids, giving further water access and retention.
Since orchids in the tropics are used to high water levels and humidity, any orchid you possess which originates there should be given similar conditions if at all possible. We will discuss how to duplicate tropic and all other climate conditions latter, for now just realize that each biome has its own water cycles and levels, and any orchid that comes from them will like the conditions provided by their natural habitat.
The vast majority of orchids in the world do not grow in desert or arid areas, but a few hardy species make their home in these regions.
Deserts are (as you might expect) dry areas of land that receive ten inches or fewer of rain every year. In contrast to other orchids, that is very little water. The few orchids that do reside in deserts are consequently used to small amounts of water.
The largest source of water for plants in a desert is dew. If you happen to have an orchid that hails from the desert, it may like getting its water at night from a spray bottle. The temperatures at night in a desert drop dramatically because of the lack of atmospheric water, so dropping the temps around a desert orchid would suit its natural conditions.
Also, remember to never have high humidity around that particular orchid, as deserts are the driest climates. Separating a desert orchid from other orchids may be your best move for keeping it and the others happy, healthy, and in the correct elements.
Temperate regions are those areas of the globe that have moderate levels of rain fall each year and play host to good farm land and rich forest. Examples of temperate regions include most of Western Europe and the north-eastern US.
The majority of orchids that grow here are terrestrial, meaning they grow on the ground. They prefer moist, shady forests which have nutrient saturated soils. The ground they inhabit is almost always wet, though well-draining, and is commonly visited by a rain fall every other week or so on average.
Modeling a temperate region orchid’s watering schedule after these conditions can help your plant feel more ‘at home’, if you will. Since a pot doesn’t have as much ground mass as the forest, you may need to water once a week, or however often it takes to keep the soil evenly moist and cooled.
The humidity in temperate regions is neither high, nor low, being right around fifty percent on average. The humidity for orchids from the temperate areas should, again, be modeled after this, which will help keep their soil at the right water level.
Temperate regions get considerably low temperatures in the winter. Matching these conditions can be a bit of a challenge depending on where you live. If you live in temperate regions you might think about planting the orchids outside, provided the soil is rich and the orchids will have afternoon shade. If you don’t live in a temperate region, you can fake a winter cycle by putting the orchids in a cool, dark part of the house, such as a cellar.
It’s hard to say what affect winter conditions have on water intake for orchids, but copying nature when we don’t understand how something works is never a bad idea.
Prairie and savanna
Prairies and savannas are drier than temperate regions but not as dry as deserts. Lots of grass and shrubs grow in prairie and savanna biomes. Orchids from prairies and savannas are more grass like than other orchids, with fibrous roots and longer, thinner leaves.
Humidity in prairie and savanna regions is pretty low, averaging about twenty percent. They have a short season most years when it’s hot and wet from multiple rains. Winters are cold and dry, sometimes dropping below zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees F).
To copy a prairie or savanna climate for the orchids from there, you can give less water and lower temps for a ‘winter’, and increase the temps and water level for summer. Keep the humidity around these orchids lower too, hopefully that will help keep an orchid’s potting mix in the right condition.
In this case I mean the higher areas of mountains that are above the tree line, not forested mountain, jungle mountains, or grass land mountains such as the Andes. These types of areas are close to tundra (the tree-less regions of the world that are cold and bleak), but subject to slightly different conditions.
Often water is close to the surface in mountains, and rainfall can be on the heavier side. Humidity is higher, comparable to that of temperate regions, and the ground is more water retentive than other soils. Temps are cool in the summer and nasty cold in the winter, making any orchids that live there hardy.
More often than not, orchids inhabiting the mountains grow close to or on rocks. This helps with drainage, and ensures the plant won’t be flooded for long if a large rain comes over the area.
Copying these conditions can be a little tricky, but including rocks in your orchid’s soil and watering small amounts will often suffice. Remember to keep the humidity at fifty percent or higher and the temps colder than with other orchids, and you should do fine.
There are actually different types of swamps.
Swamps in places like South America or Florida are hot and steamy with sandy soil, while those in Western Europe are colder and have peat for soil. Swamps in the Eastern US are temperate with rich soil.
All those types host a number of orchid species. The differences in their growth habits are more what they grow on rather than the difference of each swamp. All swamps are full of water for the majority of the year, so all orchids native to swamps are used to flooded conditions for all or most of the year. If however, the orchid in question lives in the trees, it gets less water than ground-based orchids.
Temperature depends on the region of the swamp itself. Swamps from Florida are hotter than swamps from England, and consequently more humid. Swamps from warm climates also tend to be less nutrient dense than swamps from cold and temperate regions that have sandy, acidic soil.
To duplicate a swamp-like environment, first determine what type of swamp your orchid hails from, then copy those conditions as closely as possible.
Hopefully when you purchase your orchid, the distributor will already have it in a suitable soil, but if your research turns out otherwise, you may wish to mix up your own. Again, hot swamps have sandier soil, temperate swamps have rich black, loamy soil, and cold swamps have peat. All of these soil types should be easy to procure, even at a local hardware store or super market.
When you set a routine for swamp orchids, keep them wet most of the year if they originally grow on the ground, and moist and humid if they grow in trees.
Watering preferences of different orchid families
All that being said, it’s common for certain families of orchids to live in the same or similar conditions. By families, I mean taxonomic classes, such as paphiopedilum or vanda.
- Cypripedium orchids inhabit temperate regions, living in moist, rich forests that are heavily shaded. They receive cool temps for most of the year and go through a winter cycle. Their conditions are always moist.
- Paphiopedilum orchids inhabit tropical rain forests, growing on the ground under trees. Their conditions are usually warm and humid, with moderate water levels. Don’t let them dry out.
- Phalaenopsis also grow in tropical rain forests, hence the picture of palm trees, sapphire water and orchids we get when someone mentions the tropics. Unlike paphiopedilums, they grow in the trees, receiving water through evaporation and rain. Their native conditions are humid, warm, and often wet, though never soaking for long.
- Cymbidium orchids grow in the forests of the Himalayas. They live in trees, on the ground and on rocks. The diversity of this family makes it a bit of a challenge to group into one ‘water zone’, but we will focus on the popular cymbidiums for the sake of clarity. These popular cymbidiums are tree dwellers, and receive humid conditions with warm to cool temps.
- Dendrobium orchids number over 1,800 species, but thankfully, most of them grow in trees. They come from south-east Asia and are used to warm, humid conditions.
- Odontoglossum orchids come from cool to cold mountain forests in Asia. Their conditions are similar to that of temperate regions, but they receive slightly more rain each year. Humidity for ondontoglossums should be moderate.
- Laelia orchids grow in subtropical to temperate regions in South America. Their conditions are warm for most of the year and moderately humid.
- Vanda orchids grow in tropical Asia, clinging to trees with their roots. Because of their unique growing habits, they receive water mostly through rain, meaning they get a flush of water when it’s raining, and drain quickly when it’sn’t. Their conditions are humid, moist and almost always warm.
|Cymbidium||Moderate to high||Temperate||Moist|
|Dendrobium||High||Tropic||Moist to wet|
|Paphiopedilum||Moderate to high||Tropic||Moist|
|Vanda||High||Tropic||Moist to wet|
How humidity plays a role
It would be nice sometimes if you could live in the same place as your orchids come from. But since you probably don’t, it would be worth our time to discuss how humidity can affect your orchid’s water intake.
Watering based on your average humidity
First of all, you need to find out what the average humidity level is for your area, as this is the base you will be working from when scheduling watering.
Finding your average humidity will help prepare you for an orchid setup, but to measure the humidity in the room housing the orchids, you can purchase a humidity gauge, which can be very helpful for knowing when and how often to water throughout the year. I have a gauge in the same tray my orchids are in. I keep it nestled between a few of them so I know what the humidity immediately around them is. That way, if the humidity is high, I know I won’t have to water them as often for a bit. Or if the humidity is low, I know to fill the tray with water to boost the vapor in the air about the orchids.
In sum, remember that when the humidity is high, you shouldn’t have to water the orchids as much, and when the humidity is low, you may have to employ means of rising it. In either case, it’s always a good idea to check the growth substrate to be sure. If it feels dry underneath the top half inch, give the orchid a little water. If the substrate is moist, the orchid’s good for a few days.
How your orchid’s medium (not soil) affects watering
There may be instances when you water your orchid, the humidity is high, and yet the pot and its contents dry out too quickly. Often if this happens it happens to soils composed of dirt, rather than ones of moss or bark. The case here is that the dirt became too dry at some point and is not soaking up the water because it’s too compact. When a soil gets watered, the water fills air pockets, so when that water evaporates, the soil shrinks from the vacuum effect, causing any soil that is severely dried out to be hard. Watering this dried out soil results in the water running along the sides of the pot and out the bottom, without soaking into the dirt at all.
If this is the problem for one of your orchids, remove the plant and its soil from the pot, and let it soak in a dish of water for a few hours. This should recondition the dirt and prevent further problems.
How to water orchids
Now that we’ve discussed humidity and how to respond to it, let’s consider the different ways of watering.
Most of us know about watering cans and how to use them, but orchids can be a bit more finicky than the other plants we like having indoors or out. Though you could get as elaborate as you’d like when watering your orchids (like putting misters on a timer) there are three easy ways to conduct watering, each of which is better suited to different orchids.
Spray bottles, allow you to keep the atmosphere around the orchids moist and fresh, and are probably one of the things more exclusive to orchid care. All orchids appreciate a misting from time to time, especially if the weather is dry, but those from tropic climates that grow in trees are best suited for it. These orchids get their water from the rain, so misting their roots and leaves is a good way to water them.
Another method of watering is ice cubes. Some like to use ice cubes because the amount of melted water they produce is close to the amount of water common orchids require each week. This can be helpful, especially if you don’t plan on keeping the orchids for over a year. Any orchid can be watered this way, but I’ll get to the specifics and warnings with ice cubes in a bit.
The final way to water orchids is the same way you water everything else, yep, with the good old watering can, or for some of us, jar, cup, you name it, as long as it holds water. Terrestrial orchids are best suited for this type of watering, as they prefer to keep their leaves drier and drink through their roots.
Watering orchids with ice cubes
As I’ve already mentioned, ice cubes are a fine idea if you don’t plan on keeping the orchids too long. If you’re new to orchids and you just want to try them out for a while, using ice cubes will get you through a year or so without any obvious water issues. A recent study actually showed that watering orchids with ice cubes had no adverse affect on the orchids compared to watering without ice cubes.
However, if you are an avid orchid grower, or plan on becoming one, using ice cubes is not your best strategy. Ice cubes obviously cool down the soil an orchid is in, which has no immediate effect, and doesn’t usually harm the orchid. But cool temps in the roots of a plant slow down its overall growth, and cut down bloom count to some extent. If your house is already a cold one, this will not help the orchids out, unless the orchids come from a cold climate. It’s worth mentioning, that one of the main reasons to use ice cubes for me, is to mimic the winter cycle of some orchids, which is when the water they get is colder than normal.
On a day-to-day basis though, ice cubes won’t help your orchids perform the best. What you can do instead, if you like using ice cubes, is measure how much water an ice cube holds, melted of course, and give that amount of water per week. You can put this water in a spray bottle or in the watering jar, and it should be the right amount for average weeks without wacky humidity levels.
Watering the different types of orchid media
Each type of media is unique, to a certain degree, and can pose its own problems. Watering them is done in one of the three ways described above, depending on what orchid is planted, but each has perks for keeping it moist or reconditioning it if it dries out.
Soil is the densest media orchids grow in, and thus it holds water for longer than the others. Orchids in soil will not have to be watered as often as other orchids, unless the orchid comes from a swamp. Only terrestrial orchids grow in soil, so care for their media can be lumped together.
To gauge the level of water in soil, poke a stick or pencil down about two inches, if it comes up totally dry and clean, the orchid will need water, if the stick or pencil is moist, you’re fine. If the soil dries out, but isn’t compacted yet (meaning hard from drying too much), give the plant water until it runs out of the bottom, and let the excess water drain off before you put the orchid back in its tray. If the dirt is compacted, you should remove the orchid from the soil so you don’t expose it to water too long, and soak the dirt separately. Once the soil is reconditioned, you can repot the orchid.
Bark, is used to grow tree dwelling orchids, because it has lots of air pockets and room for fleshy roots to grow. It can be hard to tell if bark is in need of watering, since using a pencil or stick won’t work. Bark stays wet at the bottom of a pot even when the rest above is dry, so check the underside of your bark pots to see if they need to be watered. Never soak a pot of bark, as it takes a long time for it to dry out again, it’s better to mist small amounts often, targeting the roots of the orchid, and the leaves. If the bark dries out all the way, it won’t compact, so you can continue watering as usual.
Sphagnum moss is used for orchids that grow on rocks, swamps, or trees. It’s light and soft when wet, and holds water relatively well. To determine the water level, you need only feel under the surface of the moss and you should be able to tell if it’s moist or not. As with bark, don’t water too much at one time, but small amounts maybe twice a week. If the moss dries out and compacts, take it out of the pot and loosen it with your fingers, then proceed watering as usual.
Peat moss is very similar to sphagnum moss, but it’s more fine-grained and lighter. It dries out quickly, so you need to watch it carefully. Using the trusty stick or pencil, you can tell if peat moss needs to be watered by poking down an inch, but make sure not to hit any roots on the way down! When peat moss compacts, you can treat it like sphagnum moss, or put it in a shallow dish of water for an hour or two and let it drain.
Mixed media is trickier to discuss, as it depends on what the mix is made of. A good rule of thumb is to consider what is in the mix–say for example bark and sphagnum moss–and to add the ingredients’ varying traits together in their percentages for a whole. That was rough, so taking bark and sphagnum moss again for an example, suppose we had two parts sphagnum moss to one-part bark. In this case we could expect the media to act more like sphagnum moss than bark since there is more of it, but to be slightly airier and less compacting than pure sphagnum moss because of the bark.
If in doubt, pay attention to your orchids, and if the leaves turn limp and wrinkly, watering is overdue. Don’t panic and water them a lot if they wilt a bit, just water the same amount as always once or twice more each week until they are firm again, and you should be good to go!
Can you use ice cubes to water orchids?
Watering orchids with ice cubes is OK if you don’t plan on keeping the orchids for more than a year. However, ice cubes aren’t the best strategy, since they can cool down the soil. The cooler temperature isn’t necessarily harmful, but slows down the orchid’s growth, and–if it’s too cold–it’ll reduce the number of flowers.
What is the best way to water an orchid?
As we discussed above in the “how to water” section, it depends on the orchid in question, but most orchids like to be either misted, or given water directly, depending on if they’re tree dwellers or ground growers.
How much water do you give an orchid plant?
A nice amount for most orchids is around an eighth of a cup a week. But you may have to adjust this according to your home’s humidity level.
How do I know if my orchid needs water?
As with most plants, when an orchid is thirsty it wilts, or goes limp. The leaves also turn wrinkly. If you have a wilty orchid, be careful not to give it too much water, but just a little more than usual for a few weeks.