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Properly care for aerial roots of orchids: We explain their function & whether you can cut them off

Even the biggest plant fan is probably surprised at first about these protruding roots of the orchid, if he had nothing to do with them before. So after buying the first orchid, the questions arise right away: how to actually treat this interesting type of root, what purpose do they serve and can or should they perhaps be put into the substrate or even cut off? We have summarized the most important information about the aerial roots of orchids, so that your new beauty gets the care it deserves.

Properly care for orchid aerial roots

Proper care of orchid aerial roots - cutting, shortening and removal

Orchids form aerial roots, basically everyone knows that. If the orchids have a lot of aerial roots, when you repot them, you wonder if you should reduce them at all. Are you doing something wrong if they change their color and structure? We explain!

What is the function of the free roots?

When and how to remove aerial roots of orchids

Some people don’t like the sight of the roots sticking out, but that doesn’t mean you can just cut off the aerial roots on orchids. After all, they have an important function:

The orchid grows on trees in the wild

Surely you already know that the orchid comes from tropical forests. However, there it grows not in the ground, but on the trees. There they receive the necessary amount of light, which is supported by the roots. Namely, they are part of photosynthesis and absorb important nutrients from the bark of the trees. It so happens that part of the aerial roots of orchids thus serve to hold, while the other protrudes into the air to absorb nutrients and moisture. This works wonderfully because of their spongy structure.

For this reason, conventional potting soil is also unsuitable for planting – the roots would completely decay. The protruding roots, on the other hand, need moisture so that they do not dry out – that is why it is always advised to spray orchids and aerial roots.

Is it allowed to cut off the aerial roots of orchids?

Cut rotten or dried out orchid aerial roots

Accordingly, you should not simply cut off the aerial roots when caring for orchids! The plants need them. You can, under some circumstances, when repotting your orchid, cut off some roots:

When and how to remove aerial roots from orchids?

Avoid root rot or dried up roots

Repotting is the ideal time to remove dried or rotten roots. In fact, it’s a mandatory part of orchid care. You can easily test whether the roots are still intact by pressing on them with two fingers. If the root is firm, it is still performing its function. However, if it gives in to the pressure, you can cut off the aerial roots in orchids.

The aerial roots of orchids have an important function

But what about the healthy orchid roots that have so far stuck out of the pot? Here: If the plant already has a lot of aerial roots, you can reduce them a little (see paragraph on “planting”). Such are usually a sign that the substrate is no longer high quality and depleted, and should be replaced. Normally, the amount of aerial roots does not exceed that of the roots in the substrate.

Shorten long roots

Is it okay to cut off the aerial roots of orchids

Already when you take the plant out of its planter, you will notice that some roots have grown out through the drainage holes. Since you can’t take the orchid out of the container anyway without hurting these very roots, you can cut them off right away.  But you do not cut the aerial roots of the orchid, or at most a few if there are really many! Cut ends of the roots is best to disinfect with cinnamon.

Planting orchid aerial roots

When repotting, take care of roots and use new substrate

When you now place the plant in the new substrate, you can also incorporate some of the remaining aerial roots into the substrate by simply turning them and in this way “remove” or reduce orchid aerial roots. You should proceed carefully here and only redirect really flexible roots into the container. They will become more elastic if you soak the root ball in water for a while beforehand. The container should ideally be larger than the old one, so that the roots have enough space.

Redirect free roots and guide them into the substrate

Do you often have problems with the roots sticking out?

Care tips for the roots of the orchid

It is a certain challenge to imitate a tropical environment in our four walls and the European climate, which the orchid needs. Especially humidity is a problem, not only during winter time due to dry heating air, but in general. Therefore, a common problem is that the orchid aerial roots dry up. This means that you should increase the humidity or spray the visible roots more often.

The protruding roots are part of photosynthesis

Your orchid aerial roots are turning brown to black? This is likely a sign of root rot and is caused by the opposite: too much moisture. So if you find protruding roots rotting more often , reduce the moisture to solve the problem.

In both cases, cut the damaged aerial roots in orchids and leave only the healthy ones (damaged roots in the substrate do not always need to be removed right away, as they provide support for the plant). Then change your care routine according to the demands.