By Toni Reale
A houseplant’s demise can sometimes be mistaken for owner neglect, however it may not be due to a lack of care. Infestations from the most common houseplant pests including spider mites, scale, mealy bugs, and fungus gnats can sometimes be to blame. There are many ways to prevent and treat an infestation, and with patience and persistence most houseplants can be fully rehabilitated.
What to Look For
The first step is to know what you are looking for. Before bringing out your magnifying glass, some easy to identify signs that you might have a pest problem include small silky webs, little round white-ish crust looking spots on the underside of the leaf, gnats flying close to the soil, or tiny specs that look like cotton fibers. If you know that you are properly caring for your plants, yet leaves are turning yellow or plant edges crinkle and fall off, you may have a pest problem. Learning how to identify and treat the four most common pests that plague houseplants will save your houseplants from finding their way into the compost.
According to Clemson’s College of Agriculture, spider mites are actually related to spiders and not insects. Their eggs are translucent to light yellow in color and can usually be spotted nestled in a silky web. The more mature mites appear as brown dots on leaves. Discolored areas on your leaves could be spots where the mite has sucked out the sap.
Scale is an insect that lives most of its life hunkered down on the woody stems and undersides of leaves. They live up to their namesake by looking like a brown-ish raised scale. Their armor-like exterior protects them from predators as they use their spiky mouth part to remove nutrients from the plant.
Mealybugs are insects that appear to be surrounded by cotton fuzz. They move slowly often hiding in hard to see places. Most plant parents dread mealy bugs the most mainly because they are difficult to control. According to Homestead Brooklyn mealybugs produce like rabbits in the insect world. Females can lay about 600 eggs at one time and in 7-10 days, you can have an infestation. Another month or two later those babies turn into full grown adults and the cycle can begin again. Despite being voracious reproducers, their mobility easily allows them to move from plant to plant.
If you see tiny flies zipping above the surface of the soil of your houseplant, you likely have fungus gnats. Don’t worry, they aren’t sucking the sap out of the leaves like spider mites, mealybugs, or scale they’re instead either eating tiny root hairs or soil nutrients killing your plant from the bottom up.
There are both chemical and non-chemical options for treating these common pests. BJ Stadleman, owner of Haegur plant shop, creates his own non-toxic concoction made of Dr. Bronner’s castile soap and water. Preferring peppermint scent because it has the added benefit of repelling most pests, he uses 1⁄2 teaspoon of the soap to 16 ounces of warm water in an amber colored spray bottle. If you want it mixed just right, you can purchase everything you need at his shop. BJ recommends taking the plant outside and giving it a good spray ensuring that the mixture reaches all of the insects. Once it dries, carefully hose down the plant. Repeat if necessary.
For fungus gnats, Kendal Leonard of Meeting Green Gardens, has a three pronged approach. Treatment includes spraying neem oil once a week at the soil level then letting the soil dry out. Gnats need water to reproduce so letting the soil dry out interrupts their life cycle. If that doesn’t do the trick, she recommends sealing the pot using plastic bags to suffocate the gnats.
Even when purchasing a new plant for herself, Jesse Nersesian, owner of Plant Babe, is not scared off by a little insect infestation. She just likes to know what she’s dealing with. She states that “having plants and coming across bugs go hand in hand”. Her go to is either Bonide’s Systemic Houseplant Insect control for prevention, or diluted rubbing alcohol all over the plant and put in the shade.
Amy Gangi, of Leaf Me Alone Plant Club prefers a mix of neem oil and water. She states that the mixture is a “safe, organic insecticide that you can use around kids and pets; perfect for indoor plants”.
At Roadside Blooms we like to use a cotton swab with either neem oil or a soap mixture to physically remove pests after we’ve sprayed or hosed down. Some of these pests are pretty tenacious, especially scale, and to ensure that the treatment gets under their armor sometimes a little elbow grease goes a long way.
Prevention is Key
Before purchasing a new plant, it is imperative that you carefully inspect the plant for pests. Plant shops inspect frequently as no one wants an infestation in their inventory, but sometimes the insects can evade even the most careful observer especially when they are in the immature stage of their lives. Before placing your new plant into your home collection, quarantine it for a few weeks just in case anything hatches. This simply means, placing it away from your other plants but still in a spot suitable to neet plant’s needs. If possible, when styling your plants be sure to place your plants so that their leaves don’t touch. This will help prevent things like spider mites or mealy bugs making their way to your other plant friends.
Houseplants under stress from lack of proper care leaves them more vulnerable to infestations. Taking good care of your plants so that they are healthy will help them to survive should pests take over. If you do spot an infestation in one of your houseplants, be sure to quarantine this plant immediately, then inspect your other plants since some pests can move from plant to plant. Treat the infected plant and only after it appears that the infestation is gone (give it a few weeks), then you can return it to its former spot.
Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself
Getting an infestation can be devastating to a plant parent’s morale (especially a new one), however no one is immune. It comes with the territory of plant parenthood. The best thing you can do is to be observant, get to know your plants to spot any early issues, and then treat them right away.
Toni Reale is the owner of Roadside Blooms, a unique flower and plant shop in Park Circle in North Charleston. It specializes in weddings, events and everyday deliveries using nearly 100 percent American- and locally grown blooms. Online at roadsideblooms.com. 4610 Spruill Ave., Suite 102, North Charleston.