Are Orchids Considered Annual, Biennial, or Perennial Flowers?

Are you thinking of welcoming an Orchid into your indoor or outdoor garden space? Curious to know if it will come back each season or if you'll have to replant it every year? In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss walks through if Orchids are considered annual, biennial, or perennial plants.

Perennial orchid growing in garden with light orange flowers

Contents

If you are new to orchid care and keeping, or you are thinking about getting started, you may be wondering just how long orchid plants will live. The answer to that question has a lot to do with the level of care an orchid gets. Orchids can be quite particular about their environment, which is why many gardeners opt to grow them indoors. Understanding the needs of a particular orchid plays a major role in its lifespan.

The question at hand is, if an orchid is given the right environment and care, is it an annual, biennial, or perennial plant? Can you expect an orchid to continue blooming, or will it die altogether when the flowers fall? 

The answer will depend on a few different factors, but primarily the hardiness zone you are growing in and the type of orchid you’ve chosen to grow. Let’s take a deeper look into the life cycle of an orchid. You’ll find out if you can expect them to return each year, or if you’ll be replanting them each season!

The Short Answer

If orchids are grown outdoors in their proper hardiness zones, they are considered perennial plants. There are cold hardy varieties that can be grown all the way down to USDA hardiness zone 5. Many varieties are tropical plants in nature, and can be grown perennially in hardiness zones 9-11. Orchids that are not cold hardy can be grown in cooler climates, but will be treated as annual plants and need to be replaced each growing season.

The Long Answer

Yellow and pink flowers blooming in garden with green foliage. The flowers are yellow on the outside, and pink on the interior. There are yellow stamens on the center of the flower, and the pink center is lined with yellow stripes.
It’s important to understand plant life cycles before determining a classification due to the nuances of each plant class.

First let’s define the terms annual, biennial, and perennial. To understand the life cycle of a particular species of plant, it’s important to understand what the possibilities are and the characteristics of each type of plant.

Annual

Annual plants are plants that go through an entire life cycle within a single growing season. This means that over the course of no more than one year, they go from seed to fully mature plant, and then die off leaving only the dormant seeds behind to germinate and perpetuate the cycle in the following year.

Some plants are true annuals in any climate, while other plants may be perennial in their native habitat but are considered annuals when grown in non-native climates. Many annual plants will reseed themselves, and in fact, in their native habitats, nearly all annuals do.

The defining feature of an annual plant is one that goes through its entire lifecycle in one year. They may show up again the next season, but this is a new plant, and has an entirely new root system grown from a new seed.

Biennial

Biennial plants are very similar in habit to annual plants, with the exception that they take two years to complete their life cycle. During the first season the plant develops a root system, leaves, and stems. During the winter a portion of the plant remains, and the life cycle is completed in the second year with the formation of flowers and/or fruits.

Most common biennials are vegetables which require more than one growing season before they are ready to harvest. Although, most can be induced to develop in one season by a process known as vernalization.

Perennial

A perennial plant is one that goes dormant in the winter months, but reemerges in spring, with new growth advancing from the original root structure. Perennial has been synonymous with evergreen in the past, but has come to have its own classification, in contemporary gardening. While an evergreen retains its foliage year-round, a perennial dies back in the winter and regrows. This cycle happens for three or more seasons.

Perennials tend to be less showy than annuals. This is particularly true in their early years while they establish a strong root system. Many of them can be quite spectacular once they have established themselves.

Perennials form the backbone and foundation of a garden. While they are slower to mature and sometimes more costly up front, they have a much better return rate in terms of longevity and overall work.

Most houseplants are perennial and grow continuously rather than dying back altogether as they do not overwinter when kept indoors. Which brings us to the topic at hand, orchids!

So, Will My Orchid Stick Around or Not?

Purple and white flowers blooming at a nursery. The flowers are white with purple stripes and there are hundreds of them lined at the nursery in containers.
If given proper care, most varieties will return each season.

The answer to the question of whether orchids are perennial, meaning they will live more than one year and bloom yearly, is yes! While orchids need a specific combination of care factors, if they are cared for properly, they will live for many years and reproduce more foliage and flowers year after year.

To understand the lifecycle of an orchid, and what makes it a perennial plant, it’s helpful to understand how they are propagated. There are 4 methods of propagation, with the more common methods all involving vegetative propagation. In understanding propagation from seed, we get a very simple answer to this all-important question of how long their life cycle is.

Propagation

Now that you understand that orchids are considered perennials, let’s take a look at how they are propagated. There are several methods of propagation, from seeds to division, and more. You’ll learn about each propagation method in detail below.

Growing From Seed

Flower seedlings growing in small clear containers. There are a number of small seedling plants growing next to each other and are young.
Seedlings can take years to mature and have a complex germination process.

If grown from seed, orchids take 3-8 years to mature. The germination process is tedious and difficult to achieve outside of a sterile environment. An orchid seed can’t be germinated without support of another organism. So, it’s not as simple as planting a seed and waiting for it to germinate.

Their seeds are exceptionally small and not able to store any nutrients on their own. In their natural habitat, they attach themselves to a specific form of fungi.

This breaks down the nutrients they need so that they can absorb them. This process is very difficult to replicate, even when performed in a laboratory. So, it is not a common form of propagation.

Growing From Back Bulbs

Bulb of new plant growing in clear plastic container on window ledge. The bulb is an older back bulb and is growing a new part of the plant.
Backbulb growth is straightforward, allowing you to replicate your favorite orchid.

This is another time-consuming method; however, it can be replicated in a greenhouse by even a novice gardener, with proper instructions. It requires a certain degree of neglect, and quite a bit of patience in some instances.

Growing from back bulbs is the process of removing old pseudobulbs that still have some roots and inducing new growth. It can take 2-3 years to get a blooming plant this way, but it is a good way to make several replications of a favorite orchid.

Keiki

Keiki growing off the stem of a plant indoors. The flower nearby is purple, but the focus of the image is the offshoots of a new plant coming off the stem of the main plant.
Small new plant formations that grow as offshoots of a parent plant are referred to as keiki.

Keiki are small, independent plants that grow as offshoots of a parent plant. Not all orchids produce keiki, but for those that do, this is a foolproof method of propagation. Simply wait until the keiki sprouts a couple inches of growth and some roots of its own. Then use a clean sharp tool to remove it from the parent plant, and then repot.

Many orchid growers find that it best for the parent plant to remove keiki, as they will draw nutrients. They can be left to grow attached to the parent plant, also, if you prefer. Just be sure to fertilize, to help support that new baby plant while ensuring that the parent plant still gets what it needs to thrive.

Division

Dividing flowers indoors in pots and containers. There are several plants in pots sitting on the counter while a gardener's pruning shears rests next to the plants that are ready for division.
Division is the most common way of propagating orchids.

By quite a large margin, division is the most common way to propagate orchids. For sympodial orchids (orchids that grow horizontally such as cattleya, dendrobium, oncidium, etc.) division is commonly a part of re potting. When a sympodial orchid over grows its container, it can be removed, and divided. Each division can then be repotted and will continue to grow as separate plants.

For monopodial orchids, which grow vertically on a central rhizome, division takes the form of slicing through the rhizome in a manner that some leaves remain on both portions. The top portion should be re potted and will grow roots of its own.

The parent plant can remain in its original container. New growth will appear from the top of the parent plant. Monopodial orchids include phalaenopsis, vanda, angreacum and ascocenda.

What is an Orchid’s Lifespan?

White flower growing in garden with pink center and yellow stamen. The flowers are budding at the bottom of the stems and green foliage grows in the distance which is out of focus.
These popular flowers can live for decades with proper care.

In their native habitats, orchids can live for quite a long time. There are some recorded to have lived for up to 100 years. The average lifespan of an orchid is right around 20 years, in the wild. Potted orchids don’t last quite as long, but with proper care, they can live for 10-15 years.

The exception to this is really rather astounding. There is one instance of a cultivated orchid, which is still living, at the Singapore Botanical Garden. The orchid, planted around the time the garden was founded in 1861, is right around 160 years old! So, the ambitious cultivator can set their sights high when it comes to keeping an orchid alive and producing new growth.

Final Thoughts

Orchids are slow to mature when grown from seed, but easy to propagate by division. They also require some very specific care to keep them happy. Once the right balance is struck, they will continue to reproduce and flower for many years, even decades.

So, hold onto that orchid after the blooms fall. Next year you can sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Watching orchid plants rebloom year after year is a splendid reward for attentive and educated care. These wonderful, perennial plants are a joy to cultivate!

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