Few other plants garner as much love and attention as orchids. A unique group with captivating flowers, they’ve spawned appreciation societies and dedicated fans that focus solely on growing these interesting plants.
Growing orchids can seem somewhat of a mystery to gardeners, especially regarding the ins and outs of propagating. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as trimming a stem and popping in a glass of water, as is the case with some other plants. Their structure necessitates more involved propagation methods, depending on which orchid type you’re growing.
We will focus on three of the most common options for home gardeners here. There are many more technical methods to research if you’re interested, but for those without a horticultural lab at home, these methods cover the basics of propagating orchids.
Orchid Propagation Methods
There are many orchid propagation methods to choose from depending on the type of orchid you have (and how much patience you have to complete the process).
Regarding propagating, it’s important to know whether your orchid is monopodial or sympodial. Monopodial orchids (Phalaenopsis and Vanda) have a single root system that can’t be divided (hence the prefix ‘mono’ in the name). Sympodial orchids (Cattleya and Cymbidium) develop pseudobulbs along low-growing rhizomes that can be split to grow independently.
If you’re growing a monopodial orchid, your best propagation option is from keikis – the first method we’ll look at. For sympodial orchids, you can try out the other two methods, depending on the size and growth of your plant.
Method 1: Propagating From Keikis
Moth orchids, commonly grown and propagated, produce small keikis that can be removed and replanted.
As moth orchids are one of the most commonly grown – especially in my household – let’s start with their propagation method first.
Monopodial orchids can’t be divided like sympodial orchids. Instead, they produce tiny plantlets known as keikis that can be removed and replanted. The term ‘keiki’ is Hawaiian for baby, an apt description of the small growths that eventually develop into mature plants.
When you propagate orchids from keikis, they may take a couple of years to flower, depending on size and environment. But this is a far quicker result than some other propagation methods, particularly growing from seed. Blooms are the highlight of every orchid, and seeing them flower sooner is a huge highlight of this method.
To start propagating from keikis, you need a sharp knife and a plant ready for propagating. Grab a new container and potting mix ready for planting once the keiki is removed.
Ensure the orchid has a sizable keiki before removal, usually appearing as green bumps along spikes.
Before you grab a knife and get ready to chop away, you need to make sure the orchid you’re growing has a keiki. Moreover, that keiki will need to be large enough to grow on its own before you consider removing it.
On monopodial orchids, keikis usually appear at nodes along the flower spikes. Rather than the blooms you would expect, you’ll notice a small and pointed green bump. This bump eventually sprouts leaves and roots, creating an interesting visual once it grows large enough. If you have multiple keikis on one plant and leave them to grow, the pot can become top-heavy and topple over.
Keikis are located at the base of an orchid.
Orchids can also produce keikis at the base of the plant, known descriptively as ‘basal keikis’. Most orchid growers prefer to leave these on the plant, only trimming off keikis along the spikes for the highest chances of success.
Keikis will draw moisture and nutrients from the parent plant to develop leaves and roots. You’ll need to wait until those roots are about two inches long before trimming to ensure the keiki can survive independently. Mist these aerial roots occasionally to stop them from drying out.
If your orchid has no keikis, there are ways to encourage them to pop up with a wonderful product known as keiki paste, although it can be tricky and quite technical. This involves slicing into the stem with a sharp knife, just above a node. This will expose the bud. Then, you can apply keiki paste. If you’re successful, you’ll see a keiki emerge after a couple of months.
Remove The Keikis
Use a clean, sharp knife or shears to cut the keiki an inch or two from the spike’s base.
When you’re keiki has long enough roots to be removed from the stem, grab a sharp knife or pair of shears. Make sure you clean and sharpen them before you start, or you risk spreading disease not only to the parent orchid but to the keiki too. A clean cut heals the quickest and avoids any harmful damage.
Cut into the spike an inch or two away from the base of the keiki. Avoid cutting any existing leaves or roots, as these need to be as healthy as possible to help the keiki establish.
Prepare A Container
Use a small container with good drainage, and fill with orchid potting mix that matches their epiphytic growth needs.
To plant your keiki, you’ll need a small container with plenty of drainage holes. Small containers are preferred over larger ones to stop the plant from becoming unbalanced.
When preparing the container, fill the bottom with a suitable orchid potting mix. These specialized mixes, usually available from local stores or online, are bark-based and contain the right ratio of ingredients that orchids love. The mixture needs to drain incredibly well and match the epiphytic growth habits of these plants.
Plant The Keiki
Place the keiki in the new container, fill gaps with mix, and water to moisten roots. Keep it in a bright area.
Lower the keiki into the new container and fill in any gaps with more orchid potting mix. Adjust the plant until the leaves are lifted off the soil, and the plant is sitting upright. Once it is stable, water immediately to moisten the roots. Continue to water regularly when the roots dry out to encourage them to spread out into their new container.
Keep the pot in a bright area shielded from intense direct sun in your greenhouse, indoors, or on your patio or balcony. If you keep up with care, you’ll get to watch the tiny baby grow into a full and flowering orchid within a few years.
Method 2: Propagating By Division
Sympodial orchids propagate by dividing mature plants with pseudobulbs.
Sympodial orchids are much easier to propagate by division, as you would with many other tropical plants.
You will need a mature orchid to start with, with enough pseudobulbs to split into two or more divisions. Pseudobulbs appear on the low-growing rhizomes of sympodial orchids, storing water to keep the plant alive during times of drought. They look similar to other flower bulbs you may have experience with but don’t function in quite the same way.
Division involves separating the rhizome into sections containing a few bulbs. Combining this process with repotting is best once your orchid has outgrown its pot, allowing you to complete two time-consuming tasks in one.
Along with your mature orchid, you’ll need a disinfected knife to cut into the rhizome, new containers for each of your divisions, and powdered fungicide (although this is optional).
Unpot The Orchid
Carefully remove the orchid from its container, using gentle techniques to loosen the roots.
Start by removing the orchid from its current container. Depending on how large and overgrown the root system is, this may take some effort. If it is sticking and refuses to budge, squeeze the sides of the container (if it is plastic) or run a knife around the edges to release roots from the sides of the pot.
When the plant is loose, turn the container on its side and gently pull the plant out from the base. Orchids can be tough but don’t appreciate being pulled roughly from all directions.
Grab the base of the plant and gently shake it out until all the roots are loose. You can also shake off some of the bark to closely examine the rhizome for the next step.
Look For Pseudobulbs
Inspect the rhizome for healthy green pseudobulbs, counting them for potential divisions.
Next comes the detective work – searching for pseudobulbs. Starting from the center of the plant, take a close look at the rhizome and work outwards to spot the bulb growths emerging from all sides. Count as you go along, as the number of pseudobulbs will influence how many divisions you can make.
Healthy pseudobulbs will usually be green, with no signs of damage. Each section you split should have around four of these pseudobulbs to grow successfully. For smaller orchids, it’s often better to keep divisions large with a few more bulbs, but large plants can be split as many times as the rhizome allows.
Split The Rhizome
Use a sharp knife to cut the rhizome into separate divisions, protecting roots and limiting damage.
Once you’ve identified each division, grab your knife to cut into the rhizome. A recently sharpened knife will make this job much easier. Work outwards from the center and cut the rhizome into individual sections separate from each other. Keep as many roots with each division as you can while limiting damage to any parts of the plant.
After cutting the sections, it’s best to dust the cut surfaces with fungicide. This step isn’t absolutely necessary, but it does protect your new plants from rotting and disease. If you only have a few divisions of this single plant, an extra step that will keep them healthy and alive is well worth the effort.
As you would with keikis, repotting is the final step in the process. Use smaller containers and a well-draining orchid mix to give each division the best possible start. After planting, water them and place them in a bright area to encourage the roots to settle in and push new growth to emerge.
Method 3: Propagating From Back Bulbs
Back bulbs are dormant storage units on the outer ends of sympodial orchids.
Propagating from back bulbs is not usually preferred due to the lower success rate as compared to the other methods. However, if you’re dividing and notice a few back bulbs, there is no harm in removing them to try this method. Although you may not be successful, there is also a chance you will get a brand-new orchid with minimal effort.
But first, what are back bulbs? Back bulbs appear on the outer ends of sympodial orchids that are no longer actively growing. Instead, they are storage facilities for the orchid, remaining dormant while attached to the plant. If removed, they can be encouraged to produce new growth under the right conditions.
Much like division, it’s best to do this while repotting when you have easy access to the rhizome without a bunch of orchid bark in the way. The same tools from the previous propagation method will work here, adding some sphagnum moss to replace orchid bark if you prefer.
Remove Back Bulbs
Identify and remove larger back bulbs with attached leaves for better success.
Start by identifying sections of back bulbs that you can remove from the main plant. Generally, the larger the bulb, the greater your chances of success. It’s also helpful if a leaf is still attached to the bulb, but these usually drop off, so don’t worry if your back bulbs are bare.
Using a sharp knife, cut these bulbs off the main plant or pull them off by hand, depending on what species you’re dealing with. Avoid damaging the bulb to give it the best chance of developing roots and sprouting.
Encourage back bulb growth by planting in moist sphagnum moss or orchid bark, keeping it warm and moist.
To push the back bulb to develop new growth, it must be planted in a moist potting medium. Most growers use sphagnum moss, but you can keep them in orchid bark if you already have some prepared.
Plant the back bulbs in this mix and lightly moisten them. Keep the pot in a warm and bright area and keep the growing medium consistently damp to encourage new growth. Patience is key here, as it can take several months to see any signs of results or activity around the eye of the bulb.
Once established, transfer to a larger pot with fresh orchid mix to continue growth and flowering.
After several months of meticulous care, you may be lucky enough to see your back bulbs sprout. Once the roots have developed and the new plant is established, you can move the entire structure to a larger container filled with new high-quality orchid potting mix. Once replanted, add this new orchid to your collection to watch it grow and (hopefully) flower.
Orchid propagation may not be as easy as it is with some other tropical plants, but considering the beauty of these unique groups, I think it is well worth the extra effort. Try propagating your own orchids at home to create an orchid collection you can be proud of.