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Ice Cubes and Orchids?

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ICE ON YOUR ORCHID?
At our many informational talks at local nurseries, we’ve had an increasing number of questions about whether or not it’s a good idea to put ice on your orchids to water them. Because all of the people that asked this question had dead orchids after they attempted to do this, we felt that it was an important enough issue to address before talking about general orchid culture.If you want our basic advice regarding, “Should I water my orchids with ice?” here it is: “No”. Orchids that are sold with this advice are grown in mass quantities in greenhouses the size of football fields. These orchids, to save costs, are potted in the least expensive “pots” possible which have little to no drainage. Furthermore, they are planted in dense moss which is conducive to

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being grown in these large greenhouses where they are misted every few hours rather than watered. You may have heard that the main way people kill orchids is by overwatering them. This is really not true! Orchids that are potted in the proper media, with well draining pots, will have the wet-dry cycle that they want. In the cheap pots and dense moss that comes with mass-produced orchids even minimal watering makes the pot become overly soggy and will kill the orchid in short order. The ice cube idea is to provide minimal water in the orchid’s suboptimal conditions. The problem is, even though this might mimic the amount of water that the orchid had in their upbringing, misted hourly in mass greenhouses, over time the plant will die from being cramped in suboptimal conditions.  If you want to keep your orchid alive for years, the solution is regular watering with room-temperature water after repotting the orchid into proper orchid mix (usually bark) and a good, well-draining pot.

If you’d like to ruminate further on orchids and ice, below are a few more thoughts on the matter…

The idea of putting ice on orchids seems very counterintuitive. After all, Phalaenopsis orchids, the main orchid being promoted to enjoy ice-water culture, are from Southeast Asia – an area that has probably not seen ice since the last Ice Age. It is important to know the reasons that ice-watering is being plugged before examining whether or not it’s a good or bad idea.

These are the reasons that we heard for watering Phalaenopsis with ice cubes:

  1. Overwatering is the primary way people kill orchids but using a few ice cubes prevents this.
  2. Freezing water kills bacteria, so the water in ice cubes is pure.
  3. Watering with ice-temperature water will give the Phalaenopsis the “cool drop” that it needs to set a new bloom.

While we aren’t prepared to say that watering with ice cubes will definitely benefit or harm your Phalaenopsis, we should examine each of these points individually.

“ICE CUBES PREVENT OVERWATERING
It is very, very true that overwatering is the most common way that people kill their orchids, but it’s important to define “overwatering” properly. Epiphytic (tree-growing) orchids thrive on humid air. They live in very humidified (and warm) tropical rainforests. When we water orchids that are planted in bark, the point is not to wet the roots (though that is unavoidable, and not a bad thing). Instead, we are aiming to wet the bark that will then, as the water evaporates, create humid spaces in which the orchid’s roots will suck up moisture. Thoroughly drenching the bark (or whatever media you’re using) will provide that humidity until the next time you water. Where people go wrong and truly “overwater” their orchids is by keeping their orchids wet all the time. Orchids don’t want their roots to be soaking in water. They like humidity, not wet – and constant wetness WILL rot the roots.

The first concern with ice cubes is that a few ice cubes once a week would not create that drenched-bark humidity that will emulate a tropical forest for a week’s time. The drenching method has been espoused by experienced orchid-growers with great success for years. If you choose to take your Phalaenopsis to the sink and drench it once a week, letting it dry slightly before re-watering, you should see the same success that these people have seen for years.

Phalaenopsis (and other orchids of the Vandaceous or Cypripedium alliances) are monopodial which means that their new growth emerges on top of the last growth. This growth pattern creates a divot atop the plant in the leaf axils that can collect water in a small pool. Another watering-related way that many people kill Phalaenopsis is to get water in that spot, which rots the plant very quickly. The watering of an orchid with ice would prevent this orchid-death as the ice would presumably be placed on the bark and not on top of the plant. If you are watering your Phalaenopsis (with water, not ice), be sure to water all around the plant and not on top of the plant. If you do get some water in the leaf axils, give the top of the plant a quick and strong burst of breath to blow the water out or use a paper towel to wick up the moisture.

So the conclusion is that overwatering may be solved by watering with ice, but simply not watering until the Phalaenopsis is almost dry and avoiding getting water into the leaf axils works just fine.

“USING FROZEN WATER KILLS BACTERIA IN THE WATER
Some bacteria will be killed by freezing water but most will not. Boiling water would kill all bacteria, but putting boiling water on your orchid will DEFINITELY kill it. Most bacteria that affects orchids comes from other plants or from us, not the water. Certainly municipal water should be almost completely devoid of bacteria (cities typically report on this). Using ice water to water your tropical plants for the sake of avoiding bacteria contamination is not necessary.

“WATERING WITH ICE WILL TRIGGER BLOOMING
This is one of the most interesting supports of ice-watering. It is true that some (not all) Phalaenopsis, and a number of other orchids, use seasonal cool drops to know when to bloom. It may very well be true that cooling the roots will trigger blooming – especially with Phalaenopsis that are sensitive to root temperature.

That said, constantly “triggering” your orchid to bloom could be detrimental. Some of the larger orchid growers use stress to bring orchids to blooming in order to sell them (unblooming orchids don’t sell nearly as well). When buying an orchid from a large grower, you should always consider that it may already be relatively stressed – so DECREASING the stress is always the best idea. Orchids use lots of energy to bloom. Triggering orchids to bloom over and over, whether with ice cubes or any other stressor, can cause an orchid to stress itself to death…literal death.

The bottom line is that, if you want to experiment with using ice cubes to water your orchid you should know that it is, at the very least, unconventional – and that many years have passed with people watering orchids in conventional ways with great success as long as they avoid the aforementioned pitfalls. Also, being that most orchids grow in tropical conditions, their desired water temperature is tepid – so DO NOT let the ice directly touch the roots. Ice placed directly on any part of an orchid will damage the cells and damaged plant parts can lead to secondary infections that will cause even more problems.