Orchids are one of the world’s largest group of flowering plants.
Some might say they are the largest group of flowering plants known to man and with species numbering over 30000, this position is not baseless.
In addition to its over 30000 species, many orchid hybrids and clones have been and are still being developed.
With such large numbers, orchids are quite popular and are easily identifiable by a reasonable proportion of the world’s human population.
As the world’s oldest flowering plant, orchids make up about 6 to 11 percent of all seed plants.
Orchids are peculiar for their exotic appearances, beautiful flowers and the unique fragrances they produce.
As a family, the diversity of the orchid group is unrivaled. Despite this diversity, orchids share a number of similarities that differentiate them from every other flowering plant.
These similarities are chiefly morphological and relate to their flowers.
They include the: production of resupinate flowers which means that their flowers grow in a twisted form; zygomorphism of its flowers which entails that the flowers produced by orchids are bilaterally symmetrical; fusion of the male (stamen) and female (pistol) reproductive parts of the flower and; production of many (could number in the millions) small seeds that lack an endosperm and require the action of certain fungi (the mycorrhiza fungi) to germinate.
So, how long do orchids live? Orchids can live longer than most humans and can exceed 100 years old. There are various factors that influence how long an orchis can live, so read on to find out more.
What Makes an Orchid an Orchid
Orchids can be classified along a number of parameters to aid in understanding them better. These parameters include natural habitat, preferred climatic conditions, and growth pattern.
By natural habitat, orchids can be classified either as epiphytes, lithophytes or terrestrials. Epiphytic orchids grow on other plants that are known as their hosts or substrates.
These orchids can be found growing on the barks of tree trunks or on thick lower branches or even on small twigs on the tree canopy.
In all of these, epiphytic orchids possess highly developed aerial root networks that help them cling to the relevant part of their hosts. These roots also are covered with a substance known as velamen which is an aggregation of dead cells.
This velamen aids the orchid in absorbing nutrients and moisture from organic debris that collect on the host’s surface as well as from the air. The point at which the orchid attaches to its host is a clear pointer as to the type of light it prefers, whether partial or direct.
Epiphytic orchids grow mostly in the tropical and subtropical parts of the earth and include Oncidiums, Miltonias and Cattleyas as examples. Lithophytic orchids are similar to epiphytic ones with the only dissimilarity being the host.
While epiphytes grow on other plants, lithophytes grow on rocks and their crevices. They are found mostly in the tropics and tend to have fleshy and succulent parts for the storage of nutrients and water during drought seasons. Terrestrial orchids grow on the ground.
They could be found growing in semi-arid deserts, boggy ravines, damp forest floors, etc. They could also be deciduous or evergreen, that is shedding leaves periodically or never shedding leaves. Examples of terrestrial orchids are Stenoglottis, Disa uniflora, Bartholina and Satyrium.
By preferred climatic conditions, orchids can be classified as cool-climate orchids, intermediate climate orchids and warm climate orchids.
These classifications are seemingly self-explanatory with cool-climate orchids preferring cold climates and usually growing at high elevations; intermediate climate orchids preferring neither too hot or too cold environments; while warm climate orchids prefer warm humid conditions.
The growth pattern of orchids is considered subsequently.
What Factors Impact How Long An Orchid Lives?
The length of life of an orchid plant is not synonymous with the lifespan of the orchid blooms.
The lifespan of orchid blooms is typically dependent on the particular orchid species, environmental factors, level of care and a host of other variables; and will range from a few weeks to a couple of months at a time.
Some persons make the mistake of assuming that once the orchid plant goes out of bloom, the plant is dead and proceed to discard it. This is not the case at all.
After blooming, an orchid enters into a resting period known as dormancy. Dormancy in plants, generally, refers to temporary periods of reduced or no growth. It is usually triggered by changes in environmental factors such as temperature, rainfall, light supply etc.
Particularly, in some orchid species, dormancy is triggered by the temperature drop associated with winter and in such instance, the orchid plant may shed all its leaves and appear shriveled or somewhat dead.
This is known as true dormancy. In some other orchid species, the period of dormancy may not cause the plant to shed leaves and its above-ground parts remain green and healthy-looking.
What is common to both kinds of dormancy is that the orchid cannot bloom during the period of dormancy. Dormancy in orchids helps the plant rest and replace nutrients expended in flowering and may last from six to nine months. So an orchid’s going out of bloom should never be mistaken for the plant dying.
The simple version of the answer to the question “how long do orchids live” is that orchids can live indefinitely. This answer is predicated on an assumption that the conditions for the orchid’s growth are consistently right.
As proof of this, there are orchids that are currently alive that are known for being many decades old. A popular example is a tiger orchid growing in the Singapore Botanic Gardens (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). This particular tiger orchid has been growing in the Gardens for a possible 160 years as historical records show that it was planted sometime in the year 1860.
To underscore the capacity of orchids to stay alive for indefinite periods, recourse must be had to their growth patterns.
Orchids are generally perennial herbaceous plants. This means that they have the ability to stay alive for more than two years. This is not the case for plants that are annuals or biennials.
Annuals cannot live beyond one year while biennials cannot exceed two years. Like most other flowering plants, orchids go through the lifecycle stages of seed production, germination, seed formation, seed maturation, flowering, and reproduction. These stages in orchids could either ensue through monopodial or sympodial growth patterns.
In a monopodial orchid plant, a single stem growing vertically upward is produced. Out of this stem, new leaves emerge on alternate parts of the stem.
These new leaves emerge at the stem’s apex and will continue to emerge for as long as the plant remains alive. As such, monopodial orchid plants can grow quite tall extending many meters above the ground.
In monopial orchids, older leaves at the base of the plant may drop off or be cut off when they are completely spent and dead. On the basis that orchids live indefinitely, this process will, theoretically, continue without end.
An exception to this is the production of terminal spikes by certain monopodial orchids. A terminal spike grows from the center of or in-between the leaves of a monopodial orchid.
By its growth, the orchid is prevented from producing any new leaves thus guaranteeing that the plant will die out. This is because the leaves of monopodial orchids tend to be succulent, storing moisture and nutrients for the plant’s use.
The production of terminal spikes by monopodial orchid plants is random and is therefore not the norm.
Monopodial orchid plants which produce terminal spikes may produce keikis, which are baby plants that are exact clones of the mother plant, and can be used to “continue” the life of the original orchid after it dies. Examples of monopodial orchids include Vanda, Vanilla and Phalaenopsis.
Sympodial growth pattern in orchids is reflected when an orchid plant grows laterally or horizontally. In this case, the orchid has a rhizomatous base or shoot from which engorged stems known as pseudobulbs emerge.
The rhizomatous base acts like a kind of thread holding the pseudobulbs together. These pseudobulbs are engorged because they function as storage organs. Nutrients, as well as moisture, are stored in the pseudobulb for use by the plant during harsh or other unsuitable periods, for instance, drought.
The pseudobulb serves as the base from which leaves, flower spikes, and flowers emerge. Once a pseudobulb is spent, a new pseudobulb emerges at its base while the spent pseudobulb becomes a back bulb.
The back bulb continues to support the growth of the new pseudobulb with its last energy reserve until it becomes shriveled and dies off. This process continues in perpetuity and thus guarantees the indefinite lifespan of the orchid.
It is a fact that the greater majority of orchid species display sympodial growth habits. Examples of sympodial orchids are Cymbidium, Bulphophylum, Cattleya, Oncidium, and Dendrobium.
Based on the foregoing growth patterns, it is clear that orchids can grow indefinitely. Even though it is possible that as the orchid plant ages, it’s original parts whether roots, pseudobulbs, leaves and flowers are replaced by newer ones, the plant still remains genetically the same.
Ultimately, herbaceous plants do not have a lifespan in the sense that more complex animals do.
It should be noted that between the 15 to 20 years mark, the orchid plant becomes weaker as a result of the influence which naturally occurring bacteria and fungi have exerted on it. This point may mark a decline in the orchid plant’s vitality.
As such, the orchid plant might reduce the rate at which it blooms and the number of flowers it produces. The plant will, of course, be capable of living for many more decades, but more of its energy will be expended on combating the actions of bacteria and other pathogens.
At this point, you might be better off obtaining a new plant if your sole interest is seeing the orchid continually bloom in all its glory.
Still, here are a few tips to help you sustain your orchid for a long period.
How To Ensure An Orchid Lives For a Long Time
Know your plant
The most important tip for ensuring long-lived orchids is knowledge of the particular orchid plant. Is the plant a clone, hybrid or a cultivar? Is it epiphytic or terrestrial? Cold climate or warm climate? Deciduous or evergreen? Hardy or delicate?
Knowing the answers to this question plus other basic features of your orchid will help you determine the kind of care you plant deserves and the best ways to show it this care.
Select the right “soil” components
From the classifications stated earlier, it is obvious that the majority of orchids are epiphytic and thus do not naturally grow on soil. It will hence be foolhardy to plant your orchid on actual soil and expect your plant to have a long life.
Orchids are best grown on special mixes that imitate their natural habitats. What is most essential is that whatever mix you use should be well aerated and capable of draining easily.
This will help to prevent the rotting of the orchid plant’s root. In addition, the right potting mix will: allow for roots to anchor well and develop properly; absorb nutrients with ease and in turn, release them slowly and; not breakdown or decompose in a rush.
Ideally, orchid potting mixes made for particular orchid plants can be purchased from online or offline stores to save time. In the alternative, you can create your own potting mix. Be sure to include chips of tree barks, wood shavings, pearlite, charcoal, and other loosely-packed materials.
Other than potting mixes, sphagnum moss is also a popular substrate for planting orchids. Sphagnum moss has a high water retention capacity and is best used for young orchid plants.
Consistent adequate lighting is instrumental in an orchid plant’s bid to live long. It should be noted that too direct sunlight may scorch the plant and too little light would mean that the plant will not come into bloom.
As such, orchids are best provided with indirect sunlight behind curtains or window blinds. A good test for determining the adequacy of light received by the plant is the color of its leaves. Bright green lives are the standard for adequacy of light. Extremely dark green leaves signal too little light while yellowish-green or yellow leaves are a pointer to much light.
The right temperature for an orchid is peculiar to each specie and minding the temperature an orchid grows in will ensure that an orchid is long-lived. Ideally, between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit is a suitable range. Direct heat sources such as radiators should also be positioned far from the plant as the air around them might be drier and harmful to the orchid.
You should also take note of the exact temperature levels for triggering reblooming in your orchid.
If an orchid plant is not grown in an environment having the right humidity levels, it may suffer stunted growth. In some instances, its leaves can become browned at the tips, its buds may fall off and its flowers may become deformed.
Hence, the right humidity levels is required for an orchid plant to achieve long life. Ideally, orchids prefer humidity levels between 50 and 80 percent. To improve or achieve better levels, humidifiers can be used.
Again, orchids can be planted on top of trays partially filled with water and pebbles. In the alternative, orchids can be misted several times a day.
Adequate watering is crucial to the growth and longevity of an orchid. Generally, orchids are best watered about once a week. Lukewarm or temperate water is preferred and the plant should be watered below its leaves.
This will prevent water from getting in contact with the plant’s crown and which can, in turn, cause crown rot that can kill the plant. In addition, orchid plants are best watered before noon on sunny days.
Ultimately, the rate of watering orchids should increase in the summer or warmer months and reduce in the winter or colder months.
Trim or prune the orchid plant
Trimming or pruning of an orchid is another act that will cause the plant to live longer. Parts to be trimmed off include dead stems and roots.
Additionally, old flower spikes may be trimmed off to promote reblooming. To trim, sterilized shears or other cutting tools should be used. Trimming is best done when the orchid plant is not in bloom (or has dropped all its flowers).
In the case of dead stems or roots that have become Brown and shriveled, they are to be cut off completely. In the case of promoting reflowering, pruning should be done at least an inch above the node closest to the lowest flower bloom in green healthy flower spikes; from the base of the plant for unhealthy brown flower spikes and; from the base on one spike and an inch above the node closest to the lowest bloom in the case of double spiked orchids.
Fertilizers will help to boost growth in healthy orchids. As such, they can come in handy in ensuring the longevity of your orchid. Fertilizers should be applied in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.
Repotting of orchids is quite beneficial to the plant. It is especially required where the roots of the orchid have outgrown its container or where the potting mix materials have broken down or decomposed.
It is recommended that orchids be repotted once every one to years. Again, repotting should ideally be done when the plant is no longer in bloom.
Watch out for harmful bugs, bacteria or fungi
These harmful organisms if given free rein will impede the growth of your plant and could result in its death so be sure to be on the lookout for them. If they do appear, get rid of them with the appropriate pesticide or fungicide.
If these steps are followed religiously, your orchid is guaranteed to live long.