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Why do Orchids Grow Air Roots?

Love them or hate them, air roots on Phalaenopsis orchids will sometimes make an appearance. Why does this happen? Should you be worried? And most importantly, should you cut them off?

Air roots on orchids are roots that grow above the soil. You can see aerial roots hanging off the plant like some tentacles.

Below I discuss if you should cut these off, whether or not they’re healthy and some other important things to consider about these interesting orchid roots.

Can You Cut Off Air Roots on Orchid?

Whether it’s a good idea to cut off air roots depends on whether they’re healthy or not. Typically, I don’t recommend cutting these off. There are at least three good reasons why air roots should be kept around.

First, aerial roots support the orchid by absorbing humidity from the environment. Secondly, you risk introducing viruses and other diseases by haphazardly cutting off air roots. Thirdly, air roots can come in handy should the roots below soil level become damaged.

This brings us to the next section of this article, in which I explain how a healthy air root looks like and when it is okay to cut off an air root.

How to Tell if Air Roots are Healthy?

First, your orchid having air roots isn’t a problem just like it having terrestrial roots isn’t a problem. Aerial roots are common on Phalaenopsis orchids.

Healthy orchid roots are firm to the touch and silvery green. These should not be removed. Removing these will harm the plant, so best to keep them around.

Some aerial orchid roots can become yellow and shriveled, especially if the air in your home is too dry. These can be removed.

Aerial roots often turn green after watering to signal that they’re well hydrated. If aerial roots are constantly green, it means the plant is being overwatered. Cut back on watering and water only when the soil feels dry and aerial roots turn silvery.

As for cutting off damaged air roots, use a sharp blade to cut off the root from the base, taking care not to cut into the stem. Also, disinfect any tools you’re using to cut the roots.

Should You Water Orchid’s Air Roots?

Orchid roots are covered with velamen, a spongy sort of covering that absorbs moisture from the environment. Air roots can look dried and shriveled, and you may be tempted to water the orchid even if the soil feels damp.

But this can cause problems at the level of the terrestrial roots, especially rotting, so don’t base your watering decision solely on what the air roots are signaling.

Check the soil too. If it feels dry, go ahead and water your orchid. If it’s moist, hold off the watering and check again in a few days.

Orchid air roots don’t need watering. The humidity in the air is enough hydration for them. If the air is too dry in your home, you can go ahead and mist the air roots.

What to Do with Broken Air Roots?

Whether you keep your orchid in a high traffic area, or you’ve accidentally dropped the plant — it happens! — or a pet has taken some liberties in playing with your orchid, you may come across some broken aerial roots.

What to do? Keep them on and hope for the best or cut off damaged roots? If you cut them off, do you cut them off entirely or just the damaged parts?

I find that the most helpful thing you can do when orchid roots become damaged is to cut off the damaged part with a clean and sharp tool. Use hydrogen peroxide 3% on the cut end to help the wound heal over.

To avoid broken roots in the future, move your orchid to a less circulated area and keep it safe from pets and children.

Other than this, you needn’t worry too much about a few broken air roots here and there. This can also happen in the natural habitat of these plants.

How to Repot an Orchid with Lots of Air Roots?

If it’s time to repot your orchid that’s abundant in aerial roots, you are probably wondering if it’s ok to bury some of these roots.

As you remove your orchid from its old pot and transfer it to a larger pot, you should first clean the roots of any remaining potting media. I usually just place them under the spray hose of my kitchen tap.

Next, I check terrestrial roots for any damaged or mushy roots and remove them with a clean blade. Once I’m satisfied with the level of cleaning and trimming, I gently guide some of the aerial roots into the new pot and bury them into the potting medium.

You won’t be able to bury all, especially not without accidentally snapping some roots, but you can leave the rest hanging outside.

I’ve also seen some orchid owners double pot their orchids, which involves simply just using a larger pot in which you place your newly transplanted orchid, so that aerial roots can hang into the larger pot.

I don’t see much benefit to doing this, but if you’re bothered by these roots hanging down at the side of the plant, I think the double potting method can mask them a bit.

Just make sure that they don’t sit in any water that pools in the pot for too long as they can become mushy from the excess water.

Conclusion

Orchid air roots are something that comes with the territory of Phalaenopsis orchids and there isn’t much you can do about them. They’re not a threat to your orchid, in fact they keep your orchid healthier and stronger.

Cutting these off won’t do any good to your orchid, so try to accept them instead. If one or two of these air roots snap or become damaged, you can remove them.

When repotting your orchid, you can bury some of these into the potting medium if they’re a bother to you. If visibly dry, you can also mist them. Other than these, there isn’t much else you need to do to keep them happy.

Updated: November 20, 2020

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