Do air roots protrude from your orchid over the edge of the pot and you are bothered by the sight? Then you have to get used to it. Because you can’t just cut off the supply organs.
The fact that orchids like the phalaenopsis develop long grayish or greenish aerial roots on the windowsill is a familiar sight for orchid owners. But what is their function? Can you just cut them off to make the plants look a little tidier? And what happens when the aerial roots look dry? So much in advance: You shouldn’t use the scissors indiscriminately on your orchid, because behind the development of the somewhat different roots there is a biological necessity.
What is the function of the aerial roots on orchids?
To understand the function of aerial roots, one has to consider the original habitat of our most popular indoor orchids. The plants are at home in the tropical rainforest and grow as epiphytes on trees. The so-called epiphytes find enough light in the roof crowns. Most of the nutrients they need come from organic material that gets caught in the forks of branches and cracks. With part of their roots, they cling to the bark of the branches.
The other part absorbs water and nutrients from the air. Rainwater runs off quickly in the rainforest. The spongy tissue of the aerial roots soaks up the water and stores the moisture. The orchids filter the elixir of life through their aerial roots not only from the rain but also from the fog. For indoor culture, this means: If the room air is too dry, the air roots dry up. Therefore, you should spray them more often to increase the humidity.
Can you simply cut off aerial roots on orchids?
The aerial roots on orchids have an important function: they can absorb nutrients and water from the air. Therefore, you should only cut them off when they are dried up or rotten. This is the case when you can easily squeeze the roots together. Tip: If your orchid has developed a large number of aerial roots, you can divert some of them into the soil when repotting.
Which aerial roots can you cut off?
Dry or dead aerial roots can of course be removed from the plant. They are no longer of any use. But how do you distinguish intact aerial roots from those that have become unusable?
One clue is the “squeeze test”: If the cord-like structure feels firm, the aerial root is healthy and stays on. If they can be squeezed together, they should be removed. Rotten roots can be carefully pulled off with your fingers from the base. Inside there is usually a strand-like kind of thin wire that is fed into the pot. Cut off dried orchid roots with sharp scissors or a sharp knife. If you have several orchids, it is advisable to disinfect the cutting tools before each new plant so as not to transmit diseases through the cut.
Tip: divert aerial roots instead of cutting them off
If your orchid has formed a lot of aerial roots, you can carefully press the longer specimens into the substrate when you repot
If a lot of new roots have formed, you can sink some of the orchids into a larger container when repotting the orchids. This is best done when the plant has new roots. Remember that orchid roots need air. The substrate must be correspondingly loose and airy. Another possibility is to tie very long aerial roots to cork oak bark or grapevine wood with nylon cord or stainless wire.
Kathryn S. Crane is a retired teacher. A freelance writer for Crown-Times, her subjects of interest are biology and art. Even before retirement, she was involved in phenological observations of the growth stages of plants. She enjoys following the activity of birds, bees, and bumblebees in her garden. However, she does not want to call herself an ornithologist.