COLUMN: Check your houseplants for bugs
It doesn’t take a lot of insects to turn into an infestation for houseplants. Plants growing outside have the advantage of natural predators to keep populations in check. Indoors there is nothing to stop insects from multiplying. Keep your plants healthy and clean and inspect them often to ensure you don’t get an infestation.
Tips to keep your plants tidy
Now is a good time to clean your plants while you inspect for insects. Clean plants will help them photosynthesize better. A feather duster will make quick work, especially for plants with small leaves. You can also consider taking the plant to the sink or shower and spraying it with water. If the plant is too big to move, lay down a protective covering on the floor to catch drips and then spray the plant with water.
Be sure to clean the tops and undersides of leaves. Many plants develop brown tips on the leaves; this happens for a variety of reasons. You can trim the brown tips off with scissors. If you like leaves to be shiny,there are leaf shine products you can buy to spray on the plants. Just be sure to read the product label completely to ensure your plant can be sprayed. As a rule, these products shouldn’t be used on fuzzy leaf plants such as African Violets or succulents.
What to do about insects
A strong spray of soapy water can be enough to dislodge many insects. Use one teaspoon of a mild dish detergent (do not use anti-bacterial soaps) in a quart of
water. Rinse with plain water afterwards. There are contact insecticide houseplant sprays such as insecticidal soap, neem, or horticultural oil labeled for use on houseplants. When using insecticides, remember the label is the law; be sure to read it completely to see if the insect and your houseplant is listed on the label. Stronger systemic insecticides are also available for houseplants; again, consult the label to be sure the insect and the houseplant is listed.
Common insect pests
The usual suspects attacking houseplants include mealy bugs, spider mites, and scale. Mealy bugs are often found on new growth and in the crevices between leaves
and stems. It’s usually mealy bugs if you see a cottony, fuzzy covering; adult insects are encased inside this covering and most insect sprays can’t get through it. Mealy bug feeding will cause leaf yellowing and leaves eventually die. You can manually remove by using a damp cloth to wipe off leaves and stems; the job can be a little yucky so wear gloves! A cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol can also be used. Pothos, philodendron and orchids can be victims of mealy bugs.
Spider mites are invisible to the naked eye. You might see salt and pepper type specks on the undersides of leaves. If there’s a big infestation, you will see webbing between leaves and stems. Spider mites use sucking mouthparts to harm foliage which causes it to be stippled with tiny yellow spots. New foliage looks deformed, leaves will die and fall off, and the plant’s color may appear dull. Washing the plant with a strong spray of water will dislodge spider mites, and they die. You may have to wash monthly to keep the entire population down. Palms, dracaena and croton can be victims of spider mites.
Scale insects are hard to identify since they are covered by a shell, often resembling “bumps” along plant stems. A sign that your plant has scale is if you find a shiny, sticky, dark substance on the plant; it’s called “honeydew” and is the excrement left behind by the insect. Severe infestations can result in so much damage that the plant can die.
Scale is the most difficult insect to control as the shells protect the insect so well. Horticultural oils can help as well as trimming off any branches with a heavy infestation. You want to stay way ahead of a scale problem.
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