Normally, when roots start coming out of the pot, you know it’s time to upgrade to a bigger container.
It’s a sign that your plant has outgrown its current home, and it needs to move to something with some more space. But what about orchids?
These aren’t your average plants. They’re quite unique compared to most other houseplants, as you probably surmised. Maybe their unusual blossoms alone were enough to tip you off!
With orchids, roots growing out of the pot can actually be a good sign. It means your plant is healthy and growing as it should be, similar to how it would be in nature.
Does that mean your plant needs them? What if you think they’re a bit ugly? Can you ditch them to clean up the look of your houseplant, or does it mean you have to repot?
We have the answer to all those questions and more coming up in this guide.
If you’d like to know more about these funky growths, including what they do for the plant and why you should probably reconsider sending them to the compost heap, keep reading.
Most orchids are epiphytes, which are plants that grow on other plants.
They aren’t parasites that draw nutrients or water from the host plant, however.
They just hang out on the bark and in nooks and crannies of the host plant, and use it as a base of support high off the ground.
Because they don’t grow in the ground like most plants, they’ve developed some unique methods of gathering moisture and food.
When you see extra growth coming out of the container, it’s usually related to this special adaptation. Let’s learn more about these growths.
What Are These Growths and Why Are They Here?
So, what’s up with these growths that you’re seeing, and what does it have to do with being an epiphyte?
Since epiphytes don’t grow in a big bunch of soil that can hold water until they need it, they have adapted other methods to draw in water.
Staghorn ferns have adapted by growing fine hairs on their fronds to catch water, and orchids developed their own adaptations to absorb all the good stuff from the air.
Orchids have two kinds of roots: aerial and “normal” ones.
The second type is the same kind that most ground-dwelling plants have, and they act in the same way, by growing in the leaf litter and other matter that gathers in the crooks of branches and cracks in the bark where epiphytic orchids grow.
Terrestrial types have the same “normal” roots for growing in the soil.
But the aerial type is far less common and usually seen on plants that grow without a soil substrate in trees or on rocks.
Aerial types are there because orchids grow attached to trees without traditional soil.
They have these roots to help them nab additional moisture and nutrients from the air, and they provide additional anchoring for the plant. Imagine clinging to a tree all day. You’d want some additional support.
So how do the aerial growths help capture additional water and nutrients if they don’t anchor in the decaying matter that the plant uses as its nutrient base?
These growths are covered in a special spongy outer layer made up of dead cells. This skin is known as the velamen radicum and it should be white, silvery, or gray if it’s healthy. When it’s moist, it becomes green.
A few other epiphytes, such as Monstera species, have velamen, too.
Once the velamen soaks up some water and nutrients, the veins of the orchid, known as steles, draw in the moisture and send it out to the regular roots, stems, and leaves.
Don’t confuse aerial roots with flower spikes.
They can look similar, especially when they’re young. Flower spikes have a bud at the end that looks like a bunch of bumps. Aerial roots have smooth ends.
What Should I Do with Them?
The short answer is: nothing!
If your plant has these growths, there’s nothing you need to do. For the most part, aerial roots are a sign that your plant is perfectly healthy and just doing its thing.
It doesn’t mean the orchid is unhealthy or that it has outgrown its pot.
These growths can actually be a good indicator of when your plant should be watered. Think of them like a built-in hygrometer.
If the aerial roots near the base of the plant touching the growing medium are green, they’re wet, and the plant doesn’t need water. If they’re silver or white, you can go ahead and add more water.
This doesn’t work as well with those growing higher up on the plant since they dry out faster without access to the moisture in the growing medium.
If any of those aerial growths are shriveled up, brown, or show any fungal growth, this is a good indication that they’re dead or dying. And this is probably because you overwatered, which is incredibly easy to do with orchids.
Dead or diseased growths can be trimmed off, but healthy growth should be left alone. Removing aerial roots reduces the amount of water that’s able to reach the plant. It grew those for a reason, right?
So can you just trim them off and give your plant more supplemental water to make up the difference? Nope. If you do that, you run the risk of overwhelming the existing roots, leading to rot from overwatering.
Removing them also introduces an opening for viruses, bacteria, and fungi.
Truly, if you can stand it, leave these growths alone as long as they appear healthy.
Trimming Aerial Roots
Let’s say you do need to trim off those aerial roots for whatever reason. Maybe they’re sick or broken. How do you go about it?
Find a pair of scissors and clean them with soap and water or rubbing alcohol. You always want to use clean tools to avoid spreading disease. Then, let them dry or dry them off.
Carefully lift up the aerial root and follow it to the base. They can be twisted up or entangled, so this is easier said than done.
Remember those maze games you used to do as a kid? It’s kind of like that. Once you solve the puzzle, use the scissors to snip away the root at the base.
For the next few weeks, you’ll want to keep a really close eye on the spot where you did the trimming and observe the overall plant to make sure nothing has snuck in to attack your specimen. Look for spots, discoloration, fungal growth, and black, mushy bits.
What if Normal Roots Are Growing Out of My Orchid Pot?
This is another possibility. These won’t be the silvery white aerial ones coming out of the medium at the top of the root ball where the stem meets the roots.
These are the ones that start peeking out of the holes in the pot. These growths are darker, and they may be brown or yellow.
Now, if you have normal roots coming out of the holes in the container, you should repot the orchid in a bigger pot or, better yet, mount it.
If you don’t love the look of a bunch of aerial roots sticking out all over the place, mounting your orchid gives you a chance to arrange them in a manner that’s a bit more pleasing. Just don’t tuck them into the moss when you mount.
When repotting, just go up one size and make sure to pick a container with lots and lots of drainage holes. The more, the better.
Embrace Those Roots
Orchid roots are usually nothing to worry about. If you see them crawling out of your plants unexpectedly, it’s typically no big deal. Just know that your plant is doing what it does naturally.
Worst case scenario, you might just need to do some repotting.