This past Valentine's Day, my boyfriend gave me a potted orchid instead of the usual bouquet of carnations and roses. Having never owned an orchid before, I checked the tag for care instructions and learned I was supposed to water it with three ice cubes, or about ¼ cup of water, once a week. I've been feeding my orchid its ice every Friday, and it's been blooming spectacularly for the past three months. But are the ice cubes really the secret to orchid success?
Why Water with Ice Cubes
The idea that you should water your orchids with ice cubes is actually a brilliant marketing initiative. Green Circle Growers, a commercial greenhouse company based in Ohio, is reportedly the largest grower or orchids in North America. They own the brand Just Add Ice Orchids, which you'll often see at supermarket checkout lines and in big box stores. If you have an orchid that came with instructions to water it with ice cubes, it's probably one of these.
First-time houseplant owners especially love this idea since it takes the guesswork out of how much and how often to water. And it's a good idea, too, given that houseplants are more frequently killed by drowning than by dehydration. Orchids, in particular, are prone to root rot, which is usually the result of overzealous watering by helicopter plant parents. Watering with ice cubes makes it easy to measure out the the correct amount so you don't overdo it and accidentally drown the roots. This method, however, is not without its critics.
Ice Cube Controversy
Gardeners are pretty divided on whether using ice cubes is actually a good idea. The Oregon Orchid Society, for example, argues that orchids planted in pots with proper drainage holes in the bottom (so not the plastic pot your Just Add Ice Orchid came in) are better off being drenched with water every once in awhile. This creates humidity around the pot as the water evaporates, which mimics an orchid's natural jungle habitat (not to mention the greenhouse it lived in before you adopted it). The Oregon Orchid Society also says that icy water can shock the roots of tropical plants like orchids, causing damage slowly over a long period of time.
All in all, there's no definitive evidence that using ice cubes to water tropical plants is the key to preventing overwatering—or a surefire way to kill them. My orchid is doing fine on a weekly diet of ice, but I've also only had it for a couple of months and it's still in its original cramped plastic pot. Someday I'll need to repot it, and with a larger pot watering with ice cubes could become impractical, particularly since my fridge doesn't have an ice machine.
By the way, watering with ice doesn't need to be limited to orchids. You could experiment with it on any plant in a small pot and see how it works out for you. I've drowned (all) my succulents in the past, so I'm planning to try them out with ice if I ever get another one. Just Add Ice Orchids also sells anthuriums, bonsai, money trees, and weeping figs, and they recommend watering these plants with ice cubes, as well.