Identifying flower spikes in Phalaenopsis orchids

Come spring and flower spikes begin to develop in Phalaenopsis orchids. There is always some guesswork involved in differentiating between an orchid root and spike in the early stage of their development. Read on to learn how to identify a spike from a root or new shoot.

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The cooler days of winter have begun receding and warm sunny days show signs of renewed vigour in your orchids, heralding the beginning of spring. After a slowdown in winter, towards the end of winter, you will find your orchids putting out new growths. The growths may be vegetative such as new pseudobulbs, or leaves and roots. You will also notice bud spikes and sheaths filling out, making you excited with the prospect of a good bloom season for your orchids.

A drop in ambient temperature at night induces blooming in Phalaenopsis orchids

Phalenopsis orchids or the moth orchids that we generally have in our collection are complex hybrids. They have been genetically manipulated to produce beautiful blooms in abundance. These flower spikes are induced by a drop of 7-10 degrees from the ambient daytime temperature. This means that warm days and relatively cooler nights will induce blooming in these orchids.

However, blooming also depends on a host of other factors such as maturity of the plant, its genetic makeup, health, adequate fertilization and exposure to stress. Bright indirect light also plays an important role in inducing spikes in orchids.

Sympodial orchids such as Cattleya and Oncidiums bloom on mature pseudobulbs, thereby making it easy for us to recognise when they produce buds. On the other hand, monopodial orchids such as Phalaenopsis and Vanda orchids produce bud spikes on the axis of the plant. These type of orchids also produce new shoots as well as roots on the axis of the plant. Therefore, when the first nubbings appear, it’s a guessing game whether the new growth is a potential bud spike or a new root, or even a new shoot.

A spike (on left) and root  pushing out together. Notice the sheathed surface of the spike compared to the glossy plain surface of the root

While a bud spike elicits joy and excited anticipation, a root may not be welcomed with the same gusto. But I beg to differ. Roots are good news too. It actually indicates that the plant is making itself sturdy and strong at the base to withstand the weight of a long, bloom-laden flower spike. Only when your plant is fully secure will it push out a spike. So if you see the orchid pushing out roots, its’ only a matter of time before the right conditions will induce blooming in your orchid.

Spike versus root

Monopodial orchids put out new growths such as roots, shoots and spikes simultaneously. So how do you differentiate between a spike and a new growth (keiki) or a root? Well, there are a few simple ways you can predict whether the new growth is a spike or a root

  • Position of new growth
Spikes develop at the axil of the leaf, while roots emerge radially around the stem

Roots, apart from absorbing nutrients, provide the plant with proper support. To ensure this, roots develop radially from all sides of the stem, which then provide adequate support and strengthen the plant for a top heavy inflorescence.

Spikes, on the other hand, grow only from an axial bud. This is exactly the spot where the axis of the leaf begins on a monopodial orchid. Also to be noted is the fact that spikes generally appear at the axil of the third leaf from the top or crown. But they may also emerge further down if the ode has not bloomed earlier.

However, the confusion begins when roots begin emerging from the axial area of the leaf. Then you need to wait until a defined form of the new growth begins.

When the axis of the plant is inclined, the spikes do not emerge at the axil, but will emerge vertically upwards, away from the axil and towards the direction of light

Occasionally, when the plant is not growing upright, and is slanted and growing in the direction of light, the bud spikes may not emerge from the axil of the leaf, but will shift slightly away from the axil of the leaf. This is seen due to phototrophic movement of the spike. It takes the shortest vertically upward route and emerges away from the axil of the leaf in the direction of light. This can sometimes be confusing to a new grower. However, in such a case, the shape of the new growth will help confirm whether it is a bud spike, new growth or a root.

  • Direction of new growth
Spikes grow upwards towards the direction of light as opposed to roots, which grow downwards towards the medium or away from the direction of light

One way to identify a root that has developed in the axis of a leaf is to check its direction of growth. If it’s growing away from the direction of light, or is pointing towards the medium, which provides moisture, then it’s confirmed that the new growth is a root.

In contrast, a spike will emerge from the axial bud, and will begin growing upwards in the direction of light.

  • Shape and colour of the new growth
Roots are rounded and have a glossy sheen, while pikes have a darker shade of green or burnished colour

As the new growth emerges, you can easily compare with other root tips to gauge whether the growth is a root. Spikes are usually a darker shade of green than the bright green or brown coloured root tips. Root tips are also shiny, pointed, rounded and slightly translucent when compared with spikes, which point upwards, are leaf green and opaque, with a prominent flat and mitten shaped projection. This differentiation in the tissue is markedly different from that of a root, which is rounded, glossy and has a silvery sheen.

Very often, spikes may have a burnished purple/brown tinge or may be burgundy coloured based on the colour of the flowers. So this can also help in identification of flower spikes. Roots also have brown or burnished tips. But this can be verified by comparing the new growth with pre-existing root tips.

Identifying a keiki or new basal growth

Keikis or new basal shoots or new growths also develop on the axis of the plant. These growths look similar to a spike since they are sheathed, but they do differentiate into leaf shaped structures at the tip early on.

A basal keiki developing on the Phalaenopsis schilleriana

These tips will help you identify flower spikes early on. You can accordingly take special care of the orchid for a good bloom season. To learn more on how to take care of Phalaenopsis orchid spikes, you can read my post Care tips for Phalaenopsis orchid spikes.

To know more about preparing your orchids ready for blooming, you can read my post on 6 Tips to get your orchids ready for the bloom season.

Until my next, happy growing and have a great bloom season!

Six orchid care tips for the rainy season

The monsoon downpours have begun and your orchids will get a fresh lease of life when you make the most of the season and allow them to soak up its goodness. Rich in Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Vitamin B12, and balanced at the right pH for their optimal growth, the rain will help your orchids thrive and bloom throughout the season. But the trick here is to expose your orchids in the right way, for the right time and to check thereafter that they are growing well and not facing issues of rot.

Read on to learn more about my six orchid care tips for the rainy season to take full advantage of the rains. An added benefit would be that we can look forward to some respite from our regular watering and fertilizing schedule, and focus on other orchid related projects.

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My windowsill vanda orchids enjoying the rains

After the hot and dusty summers, your orchids will welcome the rains with gusto. The first shower will drench your orchids and invigorate them to produce new growths and roots in abundance. The spurt in growth is significantly noticeable, some shooting up by almost a centimetre in a single day. As the leaves and stems get drenched and water trickles down the stems and into the roots, you notice visible changes such as a bright green colour, turgid leaves and new growths that are almost bursting out of their sheaths. Well that’s not all. Rain water will swell up the buds on the nodes, which develop into spikes in the case of vandas, oncidiums and phaenopsis, just as you will find buds pushing themselves out of their sheaths, as in the case of cattleyas. Such is the amazing impact of the rain on your orchids.

This should come as no surprise to you, knowing that most orchids, in their natural habitat grow in the rain forests, where there are frequent downpours and a predominantly humid environment. Epiphytic orchids (orchids that grow on trees) get drenched in the rains and spread out their roots on the tree trunks. Since the roots are exposed to air, they tend to dry off quickly and therefore roots do not rot even with repeated downpours. The leaves and crown are so arranged that water that falls on them just slips away and falls. Also the breeze following a downpour quickly dries off the plants, preventing collection of water and microorganisms in the crown and other nooks and crevices.

Providing an environment that mimics nature

However, growing orchids in your home environment or in a greenhouse is quite another story. The growing conditions you provide in terms of potting media, light and air movement will vary based on your climatic conditions. Growing phalaenopsis orchids with their crown positioned vertically to provide an aesthetically pleasing display, may not exactly be conducive for exposing your orchids to the rain. To remove the tediousness of everyday watering, we have also modified our care routine by growing orchids in moisture retentive medium. While this can work well during the warm dry summers, it can adversely affect your orchids if they are continuously exposed to the rain during the monsoons.

I grow my orchids on my windowsill, in my tropical grow conditions using organic potting mixes of pine bark and sphagnum moss. Warm summers are followed by the rainy season. While I make some superficial changes to provide a conducive environment for growth during various seasons, additional care needs to be taken so that the orchids don’t develop issues such as fungal and bacterial rot. Taking care of these issues will help you provide the right amount of exposure to rain, which will stimulate growth and blooming in your orchid.

Let us begin with the commonly faced issues when our orchids are exposed to rain:

Leaf rot in cattleya orchid
  1. Crown Rot – This is one of the most common issues faced by orchid hobbyists when their orchids are exposed to rain. When rain water collects in the crowns of monopodial plants such as phalaenopsis or vanda orchids, the long exposure to moisture, along with the bacteria and fungi that are on the surface of the leaves, tend to create an unhealthy environment for the orchid, wherein the bacteria and fungi start multiplying due to excessively moist conditions. This leads to rotting of the tender tissue in the crown of the plant. The infection spreads to the other portions of the stem and the plant slowly begins to lose its leaves. Timely intervention can help you save the orchid, but it will set back its growth and blooming to some extent.
  2. Rotting of leaves – Rain drops often collect in the base of the axil of the leaves. These regions are snugly bound to the stem and can allow moisture to accumulate. This again leads to an environment conducive for bacterial and fungal growth. Since the leaves are arranged on either side of the stem or pseudobulb in the case of vanda, phalaenopsis, oncidium and tolumnia, dendrobium and other such orchids, the infection spreads quickly to the stem and other parts. Sometimes, soft water-filled black spots appear on the leaves. If left untreated, they quickly spread and destroy the whole leaf and subsequently the stem. Only timely intervention and appropriate remedial measures can save the plant.
  3. Root rot – Moisture retentive medium such as sphagnum moss, when added to the potting medium tends to hold copious amounts of water. This is utilised by the the plant and the medium dries off after a couple of days. But when your orchids soak up rain water, the medium remains damp for prolonged periods, then fungal and bacterial infections become rampant. The roots become soggy and begin rotting. The first sign of root rot is when the leaves become thin and dehydrated despite moisture in the pot. This is indicative of a damaged root system. If not treated on time, the infection quickly travels up the root, to the rhizome and the pseudobulbs. This further causes the leaves and stem to turn yellow and black and decay.
  4. Rot of new growths – Just as with crown rot, rain water that remains trapped in new growths of oncidium and cattleya orchids can also lead to bacterial and fungal rot. As the water travels into the crevices, it collects bacteria and fungi on the surface of the plant and its narrow vertical structure does not allow air to enter and dry up the moisture. The prolonged dampness promotes bacterial and fungal attack on the roots, leading to rotting of the delicate tissue. Losing a new growth to rot can lead to setback for the plant as these new shoots are the ones that would mature and bloom in the coming season. Moreover, orchids put out new roots through these new growths. If the orchid does not have a healthy root system, then this could prove to be a major setback for the plant. So, these delicate new growths need to be protected from rainfall.

Advantages of rain water for your orchids

Now you must be wondering that if there is so much of risk involved, then why you should even consider placing your orchids in the rain. Well, for the simple reason that rain water has manifold benefits on your orchids. The first and foremost being that it has the right pH of around 6.5, which is suitable for healthy orchid growth and blooming.

The second compelling reason is that it contains Vitamin B12, which is produced by the microorganisms in air and on surfaces of plants as a metabolic by-product. As the rainwater comes down, it collects these by-products, which are rich in Nitrogen and Phosphorus (If you check out the structure of Vitamin B12, you will find several nitrogen atoms and a phosphate group in each molecule). So rainwater is the most readily absorbable form of fertilizer that you can provide for your orchids. In fact, I skip the fertilizing routine, whenever I allow my orchids to soak up in the rain. The results are simply amazing. They develop a lush green hue that is incomparably beautiful and healthy.

Another advantage of rainfall is that it can help your dehydrated orchids become hydrated and healthy once again. Since rainwater is readily absorbable, you can place your severely dehydrated orchid in rain and the leaves and pseudobulbs will plump up again. I have revived quite a few orchids that were dehydrated due to an inadequate root system. The plant basically gets a new lease of life and will begin producing new roots and growths when it gets soaked in the rain.

This cattleya sheath grew almost a centimeter in length after a continuous downpour

Healthy plants thrive in the rain by shooting up to almost a centimetre in length of new growths, leaves and roots. Spikes and sheaths also begin to develop as a result of rain. I have known cases where a vanda orchid did not bloom for ten consecutive years, but bloomed in the eleventh year, when the hobbyist allowed the vanda to soak up the rain during monsoon. Such is the power of rain water. In fact, experienced orchid hobbyists often collect rainwater in large clean storage tanks and water their orchids with it throughout the year.

Now let us understand how you can effectively provide the above advantages without adversely affecting or damaging your orchids. A little care will help you keep your orchids safe while exposing them to the rain. While most of your orchids will thrive in the rain, you may face issues in some orchids based on their health. You need to watch over them with a keen eye, for any signs of susceptibility.

Six care tips for your orchids during the rainy season:

Follow these six cautious care tips to protect your orchids when you expose them to rain:

  1. Prepare your orchids for the rainy season

My tropical grow conditions are ideally suited for warm growing orchids. During summers, the climate tends to get very warm and dry, increasing my frequency of watering. To increase humidity, I superficially line up the periphery of the pot with sphagnum moss. This provides humidity and keeps the orchids cool. But come rainy season, and I remove this top layer of moss and replace it with bark chips. This p prevents excessive moisture retention, which would lead to rotting of the orchid roots and stems.

Along with this, I also clean up the leaves of the orchids with a soft cloth or sponge dipped in mild dish-wash solution and allow them to dry under a fan. This removes any superficial dust and mites.

Small waterproof bags can be used to cover the new growths

When it begins to rain, I use small polythene bags to cover the new growths and protect them from holding moisture. I followed this tip from the YouTube channel, My Green Pets, and it has worked just fine for me.

  • Prevent retention of moisture for a prolonged period
Ensure water does not get retained in the crown of the orchid

Since we grow orchids upright as opposed to how they grow in the wild, water tends to pool up in the crown area of the pseudobulb, leading to rot. To prevent this from happening to your orchids, you can allow them to soak in the rain and once it is saturated, tilt the pot slightly and allow the excess water to run off along the axil of the youngest leaf. This will allow minimal moisture to remain in the crown, which can easily be dried up by air-drafts.

Tip your orchid pots at an angle to
allow excess water to drain out

If you grow your orchids outdoors in your balcony, patio or on your window-sill, the breeze will dry off the remaining moisture. But remember to tip the pots sidewards at a 45º angle so that excess water does not remain trapped in the pot. Alternatively, place the orchids under a fan. This will ensure that they dry off quickly. You could also draw out the moisture by rolling up absorbent paper and blotting out the moisture.

  • Check on your orchids after they get wet in the rain

One way to ensure your orchids are safe, is to check them every day for signs of infections and rot, especially after you have exposed them to rainfall. Catching infections, rot and pest infestations early on will help you save your orchid by taking appropriate preventive measures. Look out for soft, damp, dark spots on the leaves. This is an indication of leaf rot. Also yellowing and soft rot in the crown region or the stem indicates crown rot and stem rot, respectively. These require immediate remedial action.

  • Ensure a good wet-dry cycle

While it rains almost every day during the season, we cannot give our orchids the advantage of getting soaked day-after-day during the season. The reason being that we pot our orchids in moisture retentive organic medium like coconut chips, sphagnum moss and bark chips.

Good drainage and adequate ventilation holes ensure a healthy environment for root growth

Excessive retention of rainwater can lead to a soggy environment. Orchid roots do not like prolonged soaking wet conditions and quickly begin to rot. Excessive moisture over prolonged periods in the medium makes the medium very acidic. This is either caused by excessive moisture retention due to moisture absorbent media or due to poor drainage and ventilation of the pots. You need to ensure that both these issues are set right before you think of soaking up your orchids in the rain. If not detected early on, the rotting can even spread to the pseudobulbs, and destroy the plant completely.

To prevent rot from setting in, you need to limit the exposure of your potted orchids to rainfall. Let your potted orchids reach near-dry conditions before allowing them to soak up rainwater again. If they are already moist, do not expose them to rain again as excessive moisture in the medium will promote rotting of roots and new growths.

On the other hand, inorganic medium such as LECA pebbles, river rock or lava rock, pose less of a risk than organic media. Even better, if your orchids are mounted on good quality wood or any inorganic material that is non-absorbent, you can go ahead and allow them to soak in the rain during the entire season. Just ensure they dry up after each soak, so that no water pools up in the new growths and crowns. You can easily tip your mounts to one side to drain out any moisture that is trapped in new growths or sheaths.

Inorganic media is a safe bet during the rainy season due to good aeration of the medium
  • Take quick remedial action if you observe signs of rotting

Once you identify any rot issues in any of your orchids, you need to take quick remedial action to treat them at the earliest.

Removing the rotted portion of the leaf on time can help save your orchid

In the case of stem, crown and leaf rot, you may have to remove the rotted tissue by cutting or scraping away the affected portion. Apply cinnamon powder on the cut surfaces to prevent them from getting re-infected.

For root rot issues, you may need to cut away the affected portion of the roots and rhizome and apply 3% hydrogen peroxide to the healthy part of the rhizome and root system. In case the infection is severe, you may need to apply a suitable fungicide in below recommended proportions. This will help salvage the healthy portion of the plant.

Some hobbyists recommend a fungicidal spray (prophylactic) every fifteen days to prevent fungal and bacterial rot. Personally, I avoid spraying harmful chemicals and instead prefer much conservative and harmless methods to control rot issues. I use fungicides cautiously, only when there is a major problem with orchids. These are highly toxic and therefore should be applied with extreme caution and care, especially if you have children and pets around.

  • Additional precautions to be taken

Once you wet your orchids in the rain, do not allow the excess water from the medium to drain out onto other pots. This can lead to rotting of the crown, stem, roots, leaves and also new growths of the orchid. The rot is mainly due to spread of infection from one pot to another. This can be prevented by placing a saucer under the pot to collect water or allowing it to drain out fully before hanging it up above your other plants.

Another reason for spread of infection can be attributed to the use of unsterilized equipment for trimming your orchid leaves and roots. This can get aggravated and lead to spread of the infection due to a prolonged moist environment. So always sterilize your cutters with rubbing alcohol and flame it with necessary precaution. Ensure all safety measures are taken during this procedure.

For instance, Fusarium Wilt is a fungal disease that is commonly spread by sharing of water and using unsterilized pruners or cutters for trimming your orchids.

For more information on orchid diseases, pest infestations as well as their treatment and preventive measures, you can read my post How to save your orchids from pests and diseases.

Give your orchids this advantage provided by nature

Armed with these tips, you can confidently allow your orchids to soak up in the rain and get all its inherent advantages. This will promote their healthy growth and blooming. And you get some respite from watering your orchids. Just watching them soak in the rain will make you very happy. After all, growing orchids is also about keeping ourselves peppy and happy.

Please leave a comment below if you have some more useful tips so that I can include the same in the post (and credit you for the same).

Till my next, happy growing!

Project#4: Tidying up your orchid’s root system

Every year, your orchid grows new roots. As the number of new roots increase, peering through the transparent pot, you will notice several roots that are brown and mushy. This decay is a natural ageing process to shed off old roots.

A mix of old and new roots

The root system is now dominated by the roots from the newer growths. In order to create a healthy environment for these new roots, it is a good idea to clean up the root system and remove the old, dead roots.

While the general school of thought is to not disturb the orchid, I am a compulsive picker of old dried sheaths and roots that are visible, so that the orchids looks neat. This does not mean that I frequently unpot my orchids and go on a cleaning spree, every time I spot a dead and mushy root or two.

Instead, I assess whether the orchid medium remains wet due to lot of mushy dead roots. I also ensure the orchid is done with blooming, and check for the development of new growths and roots. This will indeed provide an opportune moment for repotting as the orchid will not suffer from dehydration due to lack of good roots. The new roots will quickly take over and minimise the shock of disturbing its root system.

Another reason why I like to tidy up the root system of my orchids is that dead mushy roots hold copious amounts of water. Prolonged dampness in the congested and closed environment within the confines of a pot encourages fungal and bacterial rot issues, which are commonly seen in orchids that grow in an excessively damp environment.

Dead, mushy roots encourage rot

The damp environment also acidifies the medium, leading to its early breakdown. Disintegrating medium further aggravates the dampness, leading to rot. Therefore, tidying up their root system will provide a healthy environment and prevent the root system from decaying, thereby encouraging the healthy growth of the plant, which in turn will lead to a healthy bloom cycle.

Aesthetically too, your orchid will look neat and well-groomed if the scruffy dried roots are taken off.

Green roots look healthy,  nurture the plant and provide good support

Now that you have understood the importance of cleaning up your orchid’s root system, you need to also recognise that the root system is the most important part of the plant, and is prone to set back. Therefore, you need to follow the below listed precautionary measures while cleaning up the root system:

  1. Always choose a good time for cleaning up your orchid’s root system. Preferably, time yourself when the new growths start showing up, and before the new shoot develops roots. This is of special significance as there is a high risk of damaging the new roots by bruising or breaking off the tip of the new roots. This in turn can affect its further development, as well as its capacity for nutrient and water absorption.
  2. Set aside some dedicated time to execute this project as you cannot complete it in a jiffy.
  3. Ensure that you have all the requirements like 3% bleach, rubbing alcohol, 3% hydrogen peroxide, foreceps, tweezers, fresh medium, if required, and a bigger pot ready for repotting the orchid.
  4. Sterilize equipment such as cutters, tweezers and forceps by rubbing with alcohol and flaming them. Take extreme precaution while doing so, so that there are no mishaps. Children need to carry out this step under adult supervision.
  5. Handle the plant carefully so that you do not damage any of the delicate parts of the plant such as roots, leaves and new growths.

Project

Tidying up the root system of my orchid

Cleaning up the orchid’s scruffy root system will make for one very happy plant

I mounted this Cattleya Walkeriana in June 2020.  The orchid liked its new environment during the rainy season and produced new roots. A few months later, once the rains stopped, I found the orchid suffering from lack of humidity. Frequent wet and dry cycle yook its toll on the roots and they began dying.

Things got worse when I had to suddenly6 leave town for four weeks and my orchids remained untended. When I returned, I found a severely dehydrated orchid with its roots shrivelled up and dried. Watering it regularly only made these roots mushy and unhealthy.

Fortunately, the orchid recovered from the setback and put forth a new growth and roots. I did not want the orchid to develop rot issues and so decided to cut off the mushy roots, without disturbing the new roots. Hopefully, the plant will thrive in its new healthy environment.

To execute this project, I carried out the following steps for the best results:

  1. Cleaned the work area by rubbing with a swab dipped in 10% bleach solution.
  2. Prepared the plant by watering it before hand to ensure the plant doesn’t get dehydrated since I do not water the plant for 24 hours after cutting the roots or stem. This is done to effectively seal the open wounds caused by cutting the roots or stem.
  3. Untied the wires and raffia tape that were used to secure the plant on the rock.
  4. Removed the moss surrounding the roots and looked for the mushy roots. I began separating them with a pair of electrical tweezers. The tweezers are especially useful to reach into nooks and crevices and remove dried sheaths, tease out roots and separate them from the plant before cutting them off. This easy accessibility also prevents us from accidentally cutting off good roots or sheaths.With its great value for money offer, I bought this set of four tweezers from Amazon and highly recommend the same for your orchid maintenance kit. You can check out the same here.
  5. Once the roots were cut off, I spritzed the root system with 3% hydrogen peroxide to reduce the risk of bacterial and fungal rot, and allowed them to sit for 10 minutes.
  6. I then covered the new roots loosely with a little moss, ensuring the moss is not too close to the base of the pseudobulbs. This will ensure the dampness from the moss does not encourage rot around the stem.
  7. I secured the moss and plant firmly in place with wire or raffia tape. Doing this will make the plant feels safe and will encourage further root production.
  8. Lastly, I placed it back in its tray and have been watering it every day by spraying a little water on the rock. The LECA bead humidity tray does the rest, by providing a humid environment throughout the day.

I stepped back to assess the plant and was pleased to see it all tidied up. I am confident the plant is much happier and will thrive in this low risk, environment. I will keep you posted about its progress.

There is a lot you can do to make your plants comfortable and provide a healthy environment for their growth. This dramatically reduces stem rot and root rot issues as well as the risk of developing diseases such as Fusarium Wilt.

To know more about orchid diseases and pest infections and their treatment, read my post, How to save your orchids from pests and diseases.

Orchids are resilient, and you will find them responding very well to seemingly small, yet important initiatives on your part, such as cleaning up of leaves, removing dried sheaths and cutting away dead roots, dividing the plants if they have outgrown their pots, and also cutting away old canes or pseudobulbs that are done with blooming.

All of these will give them a new lease of life and encourage them to focus their energy in putting on their best show during their bloom cycle. To know more about care tips for your orchids, read my post, 5 Basic care tips for your orchids.

Healthy growth conditions lead to a good bloom cycle

So make such projects a part of your orchid care regimen to provide them with healthy conditions for their growth.

Until my next, happy growing!