Many folks will tell you that synthetic growth stimulant products like SuperThrive or Dyna-Gro K-L-N are a boon to orchid growing, while others will tell you they are a waste of money. Certainly the apparent hype of some of the related advertising doesn’t give one a lot of confidence in their claims! From a scientific perspective however, they should offer some benefit.
Based upon their labels, SuperThrive contains the synthetic rooting hormone naphthalene acetic acid (NAA) , vitamin B1 (also known to stimulate root growth), plus a variety of trade-secret ingredients likely including kelp extracts, humates, soluble iron compounds, and the like. Similarly, K-L-N contains vitamin B1 and NAA, plus another synthetic rooting hormone, indole acetic acid, or IBA. The hormones are very powerful chemicals, and with the B1, are known to stimulate the initiation of root growth. We all know the importance of a good root system, so why the mixed reviews?
One issue might be that of chemical stability. The hormones degrade quite rapidly upon exposure to heat and/or sunlight. A fresh batch of the concentrate, if kept dark and refrigerated, will be good for about a year. At room temperature, that drops to a matter of months, any any exposure to sunlight cuts its shelf life even further. This means, therefore, that purchasing old stock or keeping a large bottle around for a long time can ruin its effectiveness, so it is important to buy fresh stock and store it properly. Even so, do they really work?
I used SuperThrive consistently early in my orchid-growing, but was taken aback by its price tag (ignoring the detail that the cost per application – one or two drops – was insignificant). In early 1995, after much research on potential ingredients, I made up my own improved version from readily-available products.
To evaluate the effectiveness of my product versus SuperThrive, I acquired three flats each of Phalaenopsis Lemforde White Beauty and Oncidium Sharry Baby from a local wholesale nursery. Each flat contained between 50 and 70 plants that were WAY overgrown, and nearly to flowering size. In fact, all of the phalaenopsis should have been moved into 4″ or 5″ pots, and the oncidiums into 4″, but I left them in the 1″ plug trays for the test. The flats were selected to be visually equivalent in size and vigor.
One flat of each was fed with Dyna-Gro “Grow” formula at 75-100 ppm N as the control group, a second flat of each was fed that plus 2 drops per gallon SuperThrive, and the third used my concoction instead of SuperThrive, again at 2 drops per gallon
After 3 months, based upon simple observation, it appeared that both of the “with additives” groups were larger than those getting fertilizer alone. After 6 months, the SuperThrive phalaenopsis plants had leaf spans (measured across the largest pair of each plant) averaging 22% greater than the “controls”, and plants getting my formulation were 24% larger (I concluded it was not a significant difference from the SuperThrive). Measuring base to tip of the longest leaf, the oncidiums receiving SuperThrive or my supplement formulation both resulted in a 17% increase in length compared to those getting fertilizer alone, and their largest pseudobulbs were 10% larger (measured base to top). I concluded that the hormone supplements can be of some benefit, and decided to see just how much the plants could be “pushed” by increasing the dosage.
After several months of adding one teaspoon of SuperThrive per gallon of fertilizer solution – 76 drops – things seemed to be going well, but when the phalaenopsis bloomed, the flowers were deformed. Fortunately, that was reversible, and upon reduction in dosing rate, the blossoms were fine in subsequent blooming cycles. I have heard anecdotal evidence that overdoing of the hormones can stunt vegetative growth as well, but have nothing to back that up.
In the years that followed I, like others, noted mixed benefits, and have come to the conclusion that if your overall culture is good, the hormones are of little benefit. If on the other hand, there is something “lacking” in your culture – old medium, inadequate or irregular watering, etc. – that causes your plants to become somewhat degraded, they can certainly help them recover more quickly. I suspect the large plants in my study, being “trapped” in plug flats, were under some stress. At this point, I still use the supplements, but only at repotting time, to help “kick start” the plants’ efforts at getting established in the new pot and medium.
By contrast, I have found that the natural stimulant product, KelpMax™, on the other hand, is very chemically stable and greatly enhances root growth in any plant at any time, which can lead to a more healthy, vigorous plant in general.
For further reading, there is a companion article written for the Volume 24, 3rd quarter , 2014 issue of Phalaenopsis, the Journal of the International Phalaenopsis Alliance.