​​Should You Use Hydrogen Peroxide For Orchid Root Rot?

Thinking of using hydrogen peroxide to treat the rotting roots of your orchid plants? There are many gardening "hacks" out there, and not all of them are great for your plants. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss looks at if this controversial practice is a good idea or something you should avoid at all costs.

Treating roots of orchid plant with hydrogen peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide is good for a lot of things. It disinfects wounds, cleans teeth, bleaches hair, and even takes blood stains out of most types of fabric. In general, it is an exceptionally valuable household tool that comes with a very reasonable price tag. It is something most people have under their bathroom sink, and it can be very tempting to reach for at the slightest suggestion of its efficacy.

The question we are going to address here though, is whether it has a place in orchid care, and specifically, for the treatment of orchid root rot.

Root rot is a scourge in the lives of orchid owners. Most of us have dealt with it at least once, and it can be heartbreaking to see the color drain from your precious orchid’s leaves and not know how to remedy the problem.

Let’s discuss the use of hydrogen peroxide in orchid care and determine whether this is a valuable remedy for the dreaded fungal infection, or more of a theory borne from good intentions, but without real merit.

The Short Answer

No, Hydrogen peroxide is not a good treatment for orchid root rot. In fact, it is not good for healthy roots either. Hydrogen peroxide will cause orchid root dehydration, and deterioration. It will ultimately cause the plant to wilt and then die if the practice is continued.

The Long Answer

Plant with rotting roots being pulled out of a pot. Gardener is holding the pot and pulling the plant out to be examined. Gardener is wearing latex gloves and the plant is on the table.
There are several gardening shortcuts that people try to cure root rot.

There are quite a few theories on how best to treat orchid root rot. Orchids have very fragile root systems that require a lot of air circulation and absolutely cannot tolerate sitting in water for any length of time beyond a few minutes if you are watering by immersion. Even in this case, the orchid needs ample drainage, and won’t tolerate soggy potting medium.

Root rot is sometimes difficult to diagnose in orchids until it is too late, and the damage has progressed to the point that there are very little healthy roots left to support the plants foliage and flowering ability. That’s where the hydrogen peroxide theory comes in.

The Theory

Gardener in latex gloves is pulling the roots off an orchid plant. Gardener is holding red tweezers and the orchid parts are on the table behind it.
The theory is trimming the roots and cleaning them with hydrogen peroxide will help with oxygenation.

The idea behind using hydrogen peroxide on orchid root rot has to do with the oxygenating properties that it has. It has been speculated that rinsing rotting orchid roots with hydrogen peroxide can help to clean the roots. It will help to eliminate fungus and bacteria, as well as increasing the oxygen around the roots.

The increase in oxygen around the roots would ostensibly cause stronger roots with more rapid growth.

While there is some value to this theory, in theory, it would only hold true if there was no damage done by the hydrogen peroxide while oxygenating the space around the roots.

The Reality

Closeup image of roots of a plant. The roots are aged, and the plant is old. The leaves at the base are green and the roots below it are rotting and brown.
The roots of an orchid plant are very fragile.

Orchid roots are delicate and rotting orchid roots are extremely fragile. Exposing them to chemicals, particularly to corrosive substances like hydrogen peroxide, will exacerbate the issue of root weakness. It will eat away at healthy tissue and dehydrate the already damaged root system.

Similar to the use of cinnamon on rotted roots, hydrogen peroxide will quickly dehydrate the fragile root system of an orchid, and especially an orchid with root rot.

Because of its corrosive and dehydrating nature, I do not recommend using hydrogen peroxide on orchid roots. It is not a good practice for roots that are healthy, much less for those compromised by root rot.

What Works

Woman holding a plant by the roots at the bottom. The roots are healthy and the woman is repotting the plant. She has red painted nails and the roots are green, and the image is a closeup.
There are more tried & true ways to treat rotting roots.

The best solution to root rot is to alter both the environment and the care of your orchid. Orchids need a specific balance between watering and humidity to keep their roots and foliage happy and healthy.

If you find yourself with a case of root rot, the first step is to repot the orchid. Gently remove the orchid from its container and loosen any potting mix from the roots.

It is highly likely that there will be some fungus present in the old potting medium. So, it’s best to dispose of it and start with fresh potting mix.

Using a clean, sharp tool, carefully remove all of the rotted tissue from the root system. Healthy orchid roots are white to green, plump, and smooth.

Rotted roots will be dark brown and mushy. Once the rotted sections have been removed, lay the orchid on a paper towel and allow the roots to dry completely before moving on.

Air Circulation

Orchids need a lot of air circulation around their roots, and good drainage. Standard potting mix holds too much water and can be a major cause of root rot.

Orchids need a special type of potting mix. Specialty potting mixes are typically available wherever orchids are sold. If you prefer to make your own potting mix, a combination of 60% bark, mixed with charcoal and perlite or sponge rock is a great place to start.

Container Choice

Pink flowering plant in a brown ceramic pot. The plant has a brown pot that is shiny with texture around the base. It sits on a white table, and next to it is a brown box.
Your container of choice is important in preventing rotting roots.

A container with poor drainage can also lead to root rot. Make sure that when repotting, you are placing your orchid in a container with excellent drainage.

Pots that are made specifically for orchids come in different shapes and sizes. They are made mostly from wood, terracotta or ceramic. Terracotta orchid pots have extra drainage holes and do a great job of containing the potting mix. They also wick away water from the roots of the plant.

Watering & Care

Watering plant with a water bottle and clean water is going into the soil. The soil is made of bark and is moist.
Watering plays a key part in root health.

Once you have repotted your orchid, consider your care habits. Orchids don’t need to be watered often. Once per week is plenty for an indoor orchid.

If you have a habit of overwatering, the ice cube method might be a good direction to take, as it virtually ensures that you will not make the mistake of overwatering.

Humidity Levels

White and pink flowering plant growing in a white ceramic container. It sits on an end table blooming in the sun.
Humidity levels are critical to the health of your plant.

The humidity level in your orchid’s space is every bit as important as your watering schedule. It may seem like watering an orchid once per week when it drains and dries so quickly wouldn’t be good for the plant, but orchids take in most of their water from the air.

I have several orchids that live very happily in a bathroom with a large sunny window. (Be careful not to place orchids, and specifically phalaenopsis orchids, in direct sun, as this will scorch their leaves.) Most orchids are quite happy with a humidity level around 50-60%.

Repotting

Gardener is pulling a plant out of the pot it sits in with damaged roots. The plant was in an old plastic container and is getting moved to a new bigger container. It sits on a table with a black potting tray underneath.
Repotting is a good idea when treating an infected plant.

Once your orchid is repotted and you have adjusted your care routine to minimize the reoccurrence of root rot, you should be able to determine whether the plant will survive within a few weeks to a month.

If the leaves continue to turn yellow and fall off, there is a chance that the rot was too far advanced to counteract, but hopefully that will not be the case and your orchid will bounce back and give you some pretty, new growth.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve ever dealt with root rot in an orchid, you undoubtedly get that sinking feeling in your stomach when you notice the slightest hint of yellow on your plant’s leaves. It can be easy to get drawn into the various theories that are floating around out there on home remedies for root rot.

The best thing to do for an orchid with root rot is to remove the damaged tissue, repot the orchid in fresh potting mix, and adjust your watering habits to make sure you are not overwatering. Rinsing or dunking the roots in hydrogen peroxide will not only fail to correct the issue, it will most likely kill the plant.

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