Orchids do have a reputation for being difficult plants to care for. Slightly unjustly in my opinion.
But there is an old saying that goes ‘if an orchid dies, you have probably killed it’.
But what if you didn’t kill it? Do orchids have a lifespan? And if so…
Can orchids die of old age?
We will examine that topic in detail in this article.
So let’s get started.
Can Orchids Die Of Old Age?
No an orchid cannot die of old age. When an orchid dies there will be something that has caused it, rather than it simply being too old. For instance, it could be a change in its growing conditions, a slow build-up of toxins in its soil, or an unexpected storm. Theoretically, if all conditions were perfect an orchid can live indefinitely.
For a plant that splits opinion as much as the orchid, there generally seems a consensus on this subject.
The majority of orchids don’t have a set lifespan and will, if conditions and care are optimum, live indefinitely.
Of course the most important factor here is ‘if conditions and care are optimum’.
In nature orchids can go on and on, often until something in their natural environment changes.
For instance, there might be an extremely rare storm that knocks down the tree they are growing on.
Or the area where they are might be affected by surrounding growth and gradually become too shaded or, to the contrary, the shade might disappear and the orchid is exposed to lots of direct sun that kills it.
But when an orchid is in our care, those outside factors aren’t in play.
So theoretically if you are removing those unpredictable circumstances, and we keep watering them and repotting them, etc, doing everything perfectly then they should just keep living.
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But this is very difficult and we are always learning new things about the way we care for and look after plants.
For instance, we may have a tendency to overfeed our orchid’s potassium, so it gradually builds up in the soil.
Often in situations such as this, it isn’t something that immediately is obvious, but it could be something that slowly stresses the orchid until it dies.
But it hasn’t died from old age.
If we were able to get everything right, temperature, humidity, watering, water quality, feeding, potting medium and so on, the orchid should never die.
But we all know it isn’t that easy!
Sympodial and Monopodial Orchids
We can probably draw some differences between sympodial and monopodial orchids.
Monopodial orchids grow off of a central, vertical stem. They have one stem and technically one root system.
Form this single stem sprout all of its leaves and flowers, unless it develops a basal keiki.
Monopodial orchids don’t have pseudobulbs either.
Sympodial orchids have multiple stems (pseudobulbs) which increase in number each year.
Sympodial orchids grow from a horizontal stem and can go for long periods without water, as they store water in their pseudobulbs.
As sympodials constantly renew themselves by producing new pseudobulbs we really can expect them to last a very long time.
Think about it, old growths die and new ones form, the plant is divided, the divisions will live on and the process with repeat ad infinitum.
For monopodials it is slightly different. They are renewing themselves by growing at the top and dying off at the bottom.
They grow single plants, and for that reason their lifespan is probably more finite.
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So linking to the above, how about one of the most popular varieties of orchid out there?
As we have established, monopodial orchids, like the phalaenopsis, are more susceptible to damage in comparison to their sympodial siblings.
But with good care and attention, there is no reason they cannot live 20, 30, or even 40 years.
The problem here is they cost relatively little. Many people buy them and then throw them out after 2 or 3 months when their flowering cycle has finished.
They either aren’t aware or simply don’t want to wait for them to bloom again.
When the initial bloom has fallen the plant is just going into a resting phase, storing energy as it prepares for its next bloom.
You can actually expect a phalaenopsis orchid to bloom up to three times per year.
Keeping a phalaenopsis alive for a prolonged period does require a lot of attention, but it isn’t beyond question.
There is definite evidence of some wild phalaenopsis orchids that are over 100 years old.
Mass Produced Orchids
Rules do change slightly when non-natural factors such as hybrids and artificial growing conditions are introduced into the equation.
Often the orchids sold en-masse in supermarkets, etc, are forced to bloom out of season and pushed quite hard so lots of flowers bloom.
The natural balance of the plant has been altered to the extent that sometimes they simply ‘give out’ for want of a better word.
It is generally much harder to keep these orchids alive for a long period of time.
So Are Orchids Immortal?
We touched on this above and maybe they are!
The thing is, when an old-growth on an orchid decays to the point it is replaced by new growth, it hasn’t really died.
It is actually leaving behind vital parts that are part of the new growth, the roots and rhizomes for instance.
So in effect orchids are just a clone of themselves, and they cannot really die of old age as they are just a few years old at any one time.
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Or think of it this way.
A friend gives you a small division from their big orchid.
You plant it and it thrives and grows into a beautiful, vigorous plant.
The original plant on the other hand begins to decline and eventually dies.
It cannot be said the orchid has died of old age, as otherwise your plant should have met a similar end.
It is down to something else whether that be the soil, an infection caused by pests, overwatering, etc.
But it hasn’t died of old age.
I suppose every plant and animal has its own lifespan and orchids are no different.
But what often kills an orchid isn’t old age, but a change of climate, a change in growing conditions, the loss of a pollinator, etc, etc.
It could be a combination of tiny factors, that when combined together slowly drain the life from an orchid and it dies.
Many orchids can and do live for a very long time.
And if everything is right they could theoretically live forever.
But as with anything, having all the stars align perfectly is very, very rare!