Saving A Rootless Orchid? (3 ICU Setups You Should Know)

Save rootless orchid

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Instead of putting out new growths, your orchid has stopped growing during its growing season in the summer. Chances are your orchid is losing its roots to rot and they are incapable of taking up water and nutrients.

Before you throw away the orchid, try to save it and you will be surprised how easy it is to revive it. In fact, as long as the whole plant is not completely dried, there are still chances of saving the plant.

A rootless orchid can be saved by removing the rotten parts and keeping it bare-rooted in a moist environment such as inside a bag, potted up in sphagnum moss, or suspended above the water.  New root growth may appear between 2 weeks and 3 months, depending on how serious the problem is.

Read on to learn more about the three key setups to save your sick orchid.

1. Why are the orchid roots rotting?

The reason why you want to remove the roots of your orchids is that the roots are rotting or are dead.

  • Root rotting can be due to inadequate watering. Overwatering your orchid would easily lead to root rotting.  Orchid roots like to have their roots dried in between watering.  If they are exposed to water for a long time, their roots would rot, become mushy and eventually fall off.  Likewise, underwatering your orchid, often due to neglect, will dehydrate your orchid, making roots dry and shrivel up. Dry roots would eventually become dead and fall off easily.
  • Root rotting can also be caused by using an inadequate growing medium. Moss and bark medium that hasn’t been changed for over a year, reusing moss that decomposes easily into peat, or even growing orchid in the soil would easily cremate your orchid.  It would suffocate the roots because the growing medium retains too much water and does not allow airflow to the roots.

Retaining too much water would also encourage molding and pest invasion to the roots.

The best growing medium for orchids should provide a good balance of airflow and moisture for the roots.

Root rot symptoms include rotten crown, withered or no buds, darkened or no roots, and insect infestations (particularly mealybugs.) These symptoms can cause other problems, which exacerbate the bad condition of the plant.

Tip: Consider using self-watering pots or switching to a semi-hydroponics setup to prevent overwatering your orchids.

Practical self-watering pot with inner basket + outer pot (2 large, 1 small)

MUZHI Orchid Pot with Net and Holes, Round Self Watering Planter Pot for Indoor Plants and Flowers 3 Sets White

Self-watering pots with visible reservoir to check water level

JFMAMJ Plant and Flower Pot Set, 5 Pack 6/4.1/3.2 Inch Self Watering Pots for Indoor Plants Wicking Pots, Modern Decorative Planter Pot for House Plants, Aloe, Herbs, African Violets, Succulents

Chic looking cache pot + outer decorative pot with water level indicator

GARDENIX DECOR 7'' Self Watering planters for Indoor Plants - with Water Level Indicator for Flower Pot , Grow Tracking Tool - Coco Coir - Gray 3 Pack

2. Warning signs that my orchid has a root problem

Being able to spot an orchid with a root problem early on is key to preventing the problem from getting too serious. If the problem is too serious, the orchid may lose all the viable roots, setting it back from its growth.

Even though you cannot see the roots buried in the growing medium, there are still some early signs to know that an orchid has root problems.  They include:

  • Stagnant growth: Instead of putting out new leaves and roots during its growing phase, your orchid has stopped growing during the active growing phase in spring and summer.
  • Leaves become wrinkly and limp. Leaves can be easily bent, leathery with visible veins, dull-looking without shine. These are the signs that the plant is dehydrated because the root is rotting and cannot absorb enough water. It would be a huge mistake to give even more water to your orchid, thinking the problem is not receiving enough water.
  • In a more advanced scenario, Leaves would fall off the orchids due to a lack of proper nutrition. The plant cannot make proper food for itself, and the right amount of water needed for daily survival is not met.

To stop the leaves from dehydrating and falling off, you need to literally go to the root of the problem.

3. Can I save my rootless orchid?

No orchid parent would want to give up on their sick orchid, but not all rootless orchids can be saved.  Check if it has one or more of the following signs of life:

  • If all parts of the roots, the stem, and the crown have NOT entirely dried up
  • When the rot is at the early stage of building up
  • In the best scenario, there is/are still some healthy root(s) attached to the plant.

If none of the above exist in your orchid, and the roots, the stem, and the crown have entirely dried up, it is already beyond saving.  But to reach that stage, it should have suffered a long time of neglect and you should have noticed the problems before it is too late.

4. How to save a rootless orchid? 3 intensive care setups

Without further ado, here are the steps to save a rootless orchid.

Step 1: Sterilize your tools

Sterilize your tools before cutting the rotted roots.

You can do so by wiping or spraying your scissors or other pruning tools with 70% isopropyl alcohol.  Wine or other alcoholic beverages would not be suitable because they need to be at least 70% alcohol.

Instead of alcohol, you can also disinfect your scissors using the fire of a torch gun or your kitchen stove.

Step 2: Soak your orchid

Soak your orchid in its pot for a few minutes.  This makes it easier to remove the orchid from its growing medium.

Step 3:  Remove potting materials and rotting materials

Put on your plastic gloves and gently remove the orchid from the growing media in a tray. The old potting mix should be dumped to prevent spreading any fungal or pest issues.

Examine the roots properly and use a pair of scissors to remove the rotted ones or parts (such as rhizome sheaths) that are dark, mushy or dried up. If these parts are not properly removed, they will rot and mold easily in the new medium.  Wash the roots gently under a running tap to remove any remaining debris.

Note:  Also remove any flower spike, if any.  This is to focus on growing new roots.

Step 4: Clean the base of the orchid using a fungicide

To disinfect the roots and kill any fungus or snails, spray the roots or the base with a fungicide such as Physan 20. Let the plant dry and wipe off the water in the crown, if any. You can skip this step if your orchid does not have any infection issues.

Step 5: Three setups to introduce moisture & airflow around the base of the orchid

Then, choose one of the three so-called ICU setups.  The best setup for you would depend on your environment, your personal preference, etc.

Setup 1: “Sphag and Bag” method

One of the methods is to use sphagnum moss and a ziplock plastic bag.  Put some moist sphagnum and the clean, bare-rooted orchid into a bag. Open the bag every one or two days to check the moisture level.

This method, however, has received mixed reviews as some have reported molding problems developing inside the bag due to a lack of airflow.

Setup 2: Sphagnum moss in a tall vase or container

Another setup is that in a tall vase or pot, put 1-2 inches of moist sphagnum moss on the bottom (remember it is not recommended to reuse your moss). Put the clean bare-rooted orchid sitting on top of the moss. The base of the rootless orchid is not buried, but just touching the moss.  This is a gentle way of introducing moisture as well as airflow to the base of the orchid, even though it has lost all or most of its roots.

Water only if the moss is too dry.  It should be moist, but not wet or water-logged.

The tall container helps traps some of the humidity around the orchid.  It still allows certain airflow and thus prevents molding issues, unlike the “sphag-n-bag” method.

Setup 3: Water culture method

This setup is the simplest because it does not require any growing medium.  It only requires a glass or a vase and water.

Suspend the clean bare-rooted orchid over some water in a tall glass.  If the orchid still has a root or some roots, the water level should just be high enough to just touch the tip of the root(s).  If the orchid does not have any roots, the water level should be below the base of the orchid, not touching anything.                        

5. When will a rootless orchid recover?

The recovery time for a rootless orchid is long, ranging from 2 weeks to 3 months.  It really depends on how much stress your orchid was under, how serious the problem was, the number of healthy roots still present, the type of care given, the environment, etc.

If you do not see any signs of recovery or change after a month, don’t lose hope!  Keep giving it care and love, because it probably needs a longer time to recover.


If your orchid has lost all its roots, don’t despair. You just need to remove the rotten roots and other parts, clean the base and put the rootless orchid on a bed of moist sphagnum moss.

The wait for its recovery may be long – ranging from 1 to 3 months – but the joy of bringing a very sick orchid to life is definitely worth it.

Happy gardening!


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