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12 Reasons You Have Yellow Orchid Leaves

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Yellow orchid flowers are stunning and beautiful. But when you see yellow foliage on an orchid, it means something is wrong. 

Anyone who has owned orchids before may have come across this issue. A once healthy and hardy orchid is suddenly struggling and the lush green leaves are now looking weak and yellow. 

Sometimes yellow orchid leaves are a natural process as the plant ages, but could also be that your orchid is trying to tell you something is off. The problem is figuring out what the problem is because plants don’t make it easy to figure out the issue.

In this article we’ll explain how to decipher the clues to turn your yellow orchid leaves green once again. Let’s get into what could be turning your green orchid leaves yellow. 

So Many Types Of Orchids

We won’t be covering every type of orchid here because there are literally tens of thousands of them (over 25,000 and no one has the time to read about them all). That being said, the advice contained herein will apply to the vast majority of the flowers and most likely the type you have in your house. 

By far, the most popular orchid is the “Moth Orchid” or Phalaenopsis. These are typically the orchids you see in the grocery store and most other places you can purchase plants. 

Not only are these plants eye-catching and beautiful with their long stalks of numerous wide, colorful flowers, but they are generally hardy, tolerant, and great for beginners and expert orchid enthusiasts alike. 

Reasons Orchids Develop Yellow Leaves

Wilted purple Orchid with yellow leaves
Wilted purple Orchid with yellow leaves

Some of the main reasons orchid leaves start turning yellow are because of the age of the plant, over or underwatering, too much or too little sunlight, potting media problems, or pests and diseases. 

With some good detective work, we can narrow down the possible causes and get your orchids back on track to good health. Sometimes we can save struggling orchids, but there may be times when nothing will bring them back, and you’ll have to replace them. 

We hope that’s not the case because we don’t like to lose plants either, but if you’ve grown plants for a length of time, you know it will happen at one point or another. 

1. Dropping Leaves Is Natural

Most plants, as they grow and age, will show yellowing or discolored leaves and eventually drop them. This can be the case with most orchid species. 

There are even some orchids, Dendrobium for example, that will go dormant during the cooler seasons and shed several leaves like deciduous trees. They will turn yellow first before they drop off though. 

When the next spring rolls around, along with longer days and warmer temps, the plant shakes off its dormancy and begins to grow again. 

A healthy orchid—not going through a dormant phase—will slowly shed the bottom leaves as it grows. New roots will sprout, the old leaves will turn yellow, and eventually drop off as new leaves grow from the middle, and upper area of the plant. 

As long as new leaves are replacing the older ones and the rest of the plant looks healthy, there isn’t anything to worry about. If all the leaves are turning yellow, or new, young leaves start fading to yellow, then we have to look at other issues. 

2. Underwatering Will Lead To Yellow Leaves

Orchids can be finicky when it comes to water. Too much water and they develop root rot, too little water and they will turn wrinkly and eventually get too dry to restore. 

Underwatering an orchid will cause the leaves to start turning yellow, they’ll shrivel up and fall off. The roots will also shrivel up, and when that happens, it can be very difficult to bring them back to life. 

Some plant care tabs suggest dropping an ice cube on the potting media daily to keep them happy, but that may be bad advice. Orchids are tropical plants that thrive off frequent rains, not frozen or cold water. 

A quick dunk once a week is usually sufficient to keep your orchid properly hydrated. If you keep it outside during the summer, you should increase the watering schedule to about every 2 to 3 days. 

Water your orchid by sinking the pot up to the rim in lukewarm water for a few minutes. This lets the roots soak up enough water to sustain it until the next watering. Remove the pot and let the excess water drain out. 

More Watering Tips

Be sure to water your orchid in the morning or daylight. Nighttime watering is not recommended because the water can stagnate and increase bacteria. This bacteria can lead to fatal root rot. 

Don’t use hard water either. Well water, and some tap water can contain an overabundance of minerals that can be harmful to your orchids. My tap water is so hard it nearly comes out in chunks! 

Distilled water works wonderfully to water your orchids, or you can collect rainwater, just don’t let it sit for too long and let it stagnate. 

Misting your orchid daily is another necessary step. Using filtered, distilled, or rainwater, mist your orchid daily. Focus on the aerial roots and the leaves, but don’t spritz the flowers. 

If the humidity is high where you keep your orchid, or you use a water tray, you can skip this, but again, orchids are tropical plants that thrive in humid environments. Misting helps when the inside air is dry and warm. 

Be sure to mist in the morning or afternoon, and not during the evening. Following these steps will help to keep your orchids properly hydrated and healthy. 

3. Overwatering Will Too

Just like too little water will cause yellow leaves, so will overwatering. The biggest problem with overwatering is root rot. This can be a fatal disease for any plant unless they are made for living in a watery environment such as water lilies. 

Healthy orchid roots are silvery green, or whitish green and firm. If they are brown, black, and mushy, then you have an orchid suffering from root rot. The leaves will turn yellow and droop as root rot becomes more severe. 

Orchid roots need time to dry out between watering or they will suffer. If they are watered too often, or the potting media doesn’t drain quickly enough the roots will suffocate and start rotting. 

When you see yellowing leaves, take a look at the roots as well. If you see soggy, rotting roots, it’s time to take immediate action. 

How To Save An Orchid With Root Rot

Depending on the severity, these steps may not save the orchid, but if it’s caught early enough it could bounce back. 

First, you need to carefully remove the plant from the potting mix and inspect all the roots. Using some cleaned and sterilized pruning shears, trim off any dark or mushy roots up to the strong, healthy root tissue. 

Next, you need to repot it in fresh, new potting mix. The old mix may have too many bacteria living in it or be too acidic for the orchid. Use a fresh, coarse mix that doesn’t retain too much moisture such as All Natural Orchid Potting Mix

Once your orchid’s roots are trimmed and it’s repotted, don’t water it for about 5 to 7 days. You should mist it daily though because it does need some moisture. Once the time has passed, start watering it regularly. 

4. Potting Media Problems

Whether you opt for a mossy mixture or an orchid bark mixture, the potting media will eventually begin to break down and will need to be replaced. Also, if you’re using something that doesn’t drain very quickly and holds too much moisture around the roots, you may need to change it out. 

Orchids in the wild attach themselves to tree branches and most never touch soil in their entire lives. Their roots have adapted to absorb water from the frequent rains and then quickly dry out.

The key to keeping a happy, healthy orchid, is to replicate their natural environment as much as possible. This includes the type of potting media you place your orchid in. 

Yellowing leaves may indicate the potting mix has become acidic, is breaking down, or is holding moisture for far too long. Your nose can tell you too. Give the potting media a little sniff, if you smell anything other than an earthy or slightly sweet scent, it’s time to replace it. 

Acidic soil may smell slightly sour, while decomposing potting media can smell fishy, have an ammonia smell to it, or smell rotten. Throw the old soil out and repot your orchid if you notice any foul smells. 

Potting mix in your orchid that is between a year to 3 years old should be replaced regardless of consistency or smell. During this time, even orchid bark mixes will begin to decompose and house an unhealthy level of bacteria that can be detrimental to your flowers. 

5. Transplant Shock Syndrome

No, you don’t need the latest medication, let’s call it “Orchidoxatril,” to get your orchid back on track. It may just need a little time to readjust. 

Transplanting your orchid, changing the potting media, or trimming rotted roots can put your plant into a state of shock. When these things happen, especially trimming roots, the plant may feed on some of the older leaves to fuel itself and redirect root growth to compensate. 

When you notice yellowing leaves after a transplant, leave them alone and on the plant. Disturbing the roots can affect nutrient absorption and the plant will feed on itself to make up for the deficiency. 

Remove the old leaves once they separate from the plant. In a few days to a week, your orchid should regulate itself and start growing normally again. 

6. Bright Lights Lightening The Leaves

Too much sunlight or excessively bright grow lights can weaken the plant and basically sunburn the leaves. Full, plump leaves that turn yellow usually indicate too much light. They will start fading to yellow and eventually die if the bright light isn’t reduced. 

In their native environment, orchids grow beneath the dense rainforest canopy and only receive dappled and filtered sunlight. Direct, intense sunlight will damage them, resulting in damaged, yellow foliage. 

Since there are so many varieties of orchids, there are certainly some that are sun loving plants and will thrive in a bright, sunny, southern facing window. 

Phalaenopsis is one species that can’t handle direct sunlight and will suffer if they are put in a very sunny or overly bright location. 

If all the leaves are turning yellow and you notice sunlight is pouring in on it, move the orchid to a window that only gets morning light. Moving it to a bright room where it can be placed away from the direct rays may be another option. 

You may need to check what variety you have because some such as Vandas, Cattleya, Epidendrum, Laelia, and Encyclia are sun loving orchids. 

7. Temperature Fluctuations

Big temperature fluctuations, or consistently too hot or cold temps can weaken the foliage, resulting in yellow coloration. Orchids like it between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the daylight hours and between 60 and 70 at nighttime. 

Make sure your orchids aren’t placed directly near AC/heating vents, in the path of a fan, or near drafty windows. If they are placed outside during spring and summer, be sure to bring them in before the evening temperatures start dropping below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. 

8. Stress From The Shipping Process

Plants produce an ethylene byproduct when their leaves die off and decompose. When large plant quantities are wrapped, stuffed in an airtight box, and stored for a time, this ethylene gas will concentrate and begin triggering other leaves to start senescing and decomposing.

The leaves exposed to the highest concentrations of ethylene will turn yellow and may die off, usually the lowest lying leaves are most affected. Recently shipped orchids, even when you get them home may experience some yellowing and drop a leaf or two. 

Most foliage, especially newer leaves should recover after they are allowed to air out, so there’s not much to do except to wait for a few days if the leaves are yellowing because of the ethylene gas. 

When you can contact a plant seller or shipper, you may be able to ask if they can pack ethylene absorbing packs when they ship the plants. 

9. Fertilizer Abundance Or Shortage

Like all plants, orchids need fertilizer to keep them strong and allow them to absorb enough nutrients. These plants don’t need as much as most other house plants though, and overfeeding can easily happen. 

Too much fertilizer can cause yellowing or browning leaves because of the salts and other chemicals. Too little fertilizer can also leave the plant nutrient deficient, in which case it will start feeding on its leaves to keep the roots strong. 

How can you tell if you’re over or underfeeding your orchid? Choosing a good orchid food such as Organic Ready to Spray Orchid Food Mist is a great first step. 

General fertilizer for house plants can be too strong for orchids and can result in fertilizer burn and yellowing leaves. The higher concentrations of plant food can also damage the roots which will exacerbate the yellow foliage problem. 

Generally, too much fertilizer will show up as yellowing and weak leaves starting from the bottom leaves and spreading up. This is also an indication of other problems, so if you have been recently fertilizing your plant and the yellow leaves started, stop fertilizing for a little while. 

You can also run some tepid water over the soil and roots to help dilute the fertilizer if you suspect it got a large dose. 

When leaves begin to yellow around the edges, this is usually an indication of nutrient deficiency and it needs some light fertilization. 

Orchids only need fertilizer during the growing months. Fertilize your orchids when the last flower has dropped and stop again in the fall. You can add a weak fertilizer about once a week, to once a month at the very minimum.

While it might be tempting to remove the yellow leaves on a nutritionally deficient orchid, don’t remove it unless it’s showing signs of disease. The yellow leaves should return to normal once they get the food they need, if not, remove them when they naturally fall off. 

10. Humidity Has An Impact

Orchids require higher humidity than what’s comfortable in the typical home. Most homes tend to remain around 40%, but orchids like the ambient humidity between 55 and 75%.

When the air around an orchid is too dry, this can have an impact on the foliage and lead to yellowing leaves. 

You don’t have to increase the humidity throughout your entire house, sweaty walls aren’t healthy indoors. Using a humidity tray or a small humidifier near your orchid can keep the air in the safe zone. You can also mist it frequently to keep the humidity high enough. 

A humidity tray is a wide tray lined with rocks or pebbles and filled with water. Your humidity loving plants are then placed on the pebbles, which shouldn’t be completely submerged. As the water slowly evaporates, the vapor reaches the plant and raises the humidity to proper levels for orchids and other plants. 

Other ways to make sure your orchids aren’t drying out too much is to make sure they aren’t in the direct path of your HVAC vents, and you don’t have any fans blowing directly on them. 

11. Pesky Pests

Bugs get in everywhere, and when you have house plants inside, you’ll inevitably get some type of insects. Whether these are tiny, annoying fungus gnats, spider mites, or aphids, you’ll have to deal with bugs at one point or another. 

Most of these bugs drain the sap from the plant’s foliage, leading to yellowing, and eventually brown, dead leaves. 

There are too many bugs that love to feed on house plants to list, so we’ll focus on the most popular that can infect your orchids. These include spider mites, thrips, mealybugs, aphids, and scale insects. 

All of these pests, with one exception, can be treated by wiping the leaves off with a damp, soft cloth, or spritzing them with an insecticidal soap or Neem Oil. In the case of a heavy infestation, spraying them is the best method of attack. 

When you notice insects, separate the infected plants so the bugs don’t hop off one plant and onto another. If you keep your orchids outside, be sure to spray them in the morning, let the spray sit for 15 to 30 minutes then rinse them off so the sun’s rays don’t burn the leaves where the spray sat. 

Now let’s go over what all these bugs look like so you can identify the problem. 

Spider Mites

These bugs are so tiny that you might not see them without a magnifying glass, but you will notice a fine webbing on the tips of the leaves and possibly flowers. In heavy infestations, you may see tiny dots moving around the thin filaments. 

While these bugs are related to arachnids, they aren’t actually spiders, they’re mites that spin silk to get from one place to another. Spider mites can’t harm you, but they’ll suck the juices and sap from plants. 

If left alone, spider mites can kill a plant, and then they’ll spread to others. Spraying these tiny bugs is the best way to get rid of them. You can wipe them off, but they can easily hide in the smallest crevices where you can’t wipe them up. 

Thrips

Another insect that affects orchids and is hard to see with the unaided eye, is the tiny thrip. As they age, thrips can get up to an eighth of an inch long. These insects are thin and elongated and like to hide under the leaves and in the flowers. 

They may develop wings as they mature, so catching them quickly can help to prevent their spread. 

Thrips can make the leaves look papery and thin, or they can drill tiny feeding holes in the leaves and flowers.

Mealybugs

Another sapsucker, these are much more noticeable than the previous pests we’ve covered. Mealybugs get up to ¼ of an inch long and are white and fuzzy looking. They secrete a wooly and waxy substance to protect themselves. 

You’ll see small, white, slow moving, fuzzy lumps on your orchids. These can be wiped off with a damp cloth or sprayed. 

Mealybugs often attract ants which will relentlessly protect them because these bugs produce a sticky substance called honeydew that the ants feed on. 

Aphids

Aphids are nearly everywhere, and if you have ever dealt with plants of any kind, you’ve probably seen or had to combat these incredibly prolific pests. 

Aphids are very small, pear shaped insects that hang out under the leaves and on the stems of plants sucking the juices from them. Some develop wings, and they too excrete honeydew that can attract more pests. 

Fortunately, these bugs are slow moving and easy to wipe off or spray. One of the biggest problems with aphids is they multiply incredibly fast. You may notice a few one day, only to see hundreds a few days later. 

These insects will eventually drain the entire plant, and then move on to others continuing their destructive ways. 

Scale Insects

Scale bugs are related to mealy bugs, but they don’t have the fuzzy, white covering. They do have a hard shell, and when they settle down to feed, they seal themselves up on the leaf, making it very difficult to remove them. 

Insecticidal sprays are largely ineffective on scale insects that have attached themselves to a plant. If they are still moving around, you can spray them or wipe them off, but if they look like solid nodules on your orchids, you’ll have to resort to more drastic measures. 

Using a 1 to 1 mixture of rubbing alcohol and water, dampen a toothbrush and gently scrub the scale insects. This may get rid of them, but you should test a small section of the orchid leaf to make sure it’s not going to damage it. 

If that doesn’t dislodge them after a few days, you will have to resort to physical means. Either use your fingernail or a toothpick to pry the scale off the foliage, or cut the infected leaves off and dispose of them. 

In cases where every leaf has scale bugs on it, you’ll be better off picking them off, because removing all the leaves could be fatal to the orchid. 

12. Dreaded Diseases

There aren’t many diseases that affect orchids, but fungal and bacterial infections are the most common that will discolor the leaves. 

Fungal infections appear as yellow areas on the bottom of the leaves. If left untreated, the spots will appear on the top of the leaf and turn brown or black. 

Bacterial infections bring along a foul odor with them. When you notice a strong stench, you know you have a bacterial infection such as root rot. 

For both of these infections, separate affected plants from healthy ones to keep them from spreading. Remove any infected leaves or roots with clean, sharp cutting utensils and dispose of them. 

Next spray the plant with a fungicide such as Bonide Fung-onil Multi-Purpose Fungicide, even if you suspect a bacterial infection. 

Change the soil out as well, especially if you have root rot, or the potting media is staying too damp. Both of these infections usually come about from too much moisture and not enough airflow so remedy these problems if they are affecting your plant.

FAQs

Should I cut off yellow orchid leaves?

Yellow leaves usually indicate something is wrong with your orchid, but don’t take them off unless it has an infection. Normal, yellow leaves can still provide some nutrients to the plant, and cutting them off too soon can make the plant turn other leaves yellow.

Find out what’s wrong with the plant, fix the issue, and then remove the leaf once it turns brown and falls off.

Will yellow leaves turn green again?

Once a leaf on a plant has turned yellow, the chlorophyll is gone and it usually never comes back. The exceptions are underwatered plants and under-fertilized plants. If you water a dehydrated plant or give it some fertilizer, this should restore the green coloring.

What do dehydrated orchids look like?

In minor cases, dehydrated orchids start off with yellowing leaves and dry looking roots. In more extreme cases the leaves will become more discolored, thin out, and get wrinkly, limp, and rubbery until they fall off. The roots will turn white or gray, shriveling up as the dry conditions continue.  

Do yellow leaves mean my orchid is dying?

A: Yellow leaves do indicate that something is off with the plant. When these warning signs are not acted upon quickly, the plant could end up dying. Yellowing leaves may mean too much or too little water, fertilizer, too much light, humidity or temperature problems.

By doing some detective work and figuring out what your orchid is trying to tell you, you can usually rescue your plant.

How to Prevent Orchid Leaves From Turning Yellow

To prevent orchids from losing their leaves and premature yellowing, replicate their natural, native environment as best as possible. Provide the proper water level, humidity, temperature, lighting, air circulation, soil composition and drainage, and nutrients, and keep the bugs and diseases at bay. Plants that have all their ideal parameters met and maintained will thrive.

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