Some of you stylish ladies out there might think orchid sheaths have something to do with fashionable sheath dresses. But no, they have pretty much nothing in common except for the fact that orchid sheaths and sheath dresses both cover something beautiful.
Orchid sheath is a little enclosed leaf pocket that houses one or more flower buds. Not all orchids produce sheath, though. Some of the orchids in the Cattleya and Paphiopedilum families produce sheaths. Some of the less common orchids also produce sheaths. For example, my prolific Cadetia taylori sometimes produces multiple sheaths on one stem.
Usually, the orchid sheaths appear at the points where the leaves and the psedobulbs/stems intersect. For Paphiopedilum, the sheaths usually come up the leave axils at the base. You will see a flat sheath at the beginning. Then as the bud matures inside, you will see a fatter and fatter sheath until the buds finally break through.
How long does it take for the flowers to come out of the orchid sheaths? I am afraid there is no standard answer. Sometimes it could take several weeks, but sometimes it takes several months. There are orchids that produce sheaths in the fall, but won’t flower until spring. For example, my Brassocattleya Maikai sets its sheath when the growths complete in early fall, but the flowers won’t come out until the winter passes. Different orchids have different habits.
Some growers advocate sheath cutting, meaning they will split the sheath open so that the buds can “breathe” inside. I am not one of them. I think for a healthy, disease-resistant orchid plant should be strong enough to go through this natural process without human intervention. However, if the buds keep rotting inside the sheath before coming out, then you might want to consider your growing environment and habits. Are you watering right on the sheath? Are you watering too late in the day so your plant doesn’t have time to dry out before night falls? Do you not have enough air movement around? Pay closer attentions to your plants and you will have healthy plants and flowers.
Sometimes orchid sheaths will dry up and turn brown before the buds come out. But don’t remove the sheath unless you are absolutely, positively sure that there is no bud inside. Many perfectly healthy orchid buds live inside those dry brown sheaths.