We need to talk about houseplant pests
Look at you. You look exhausted, limp, discolored, not yourself. Your leaves are yellow and curling. You’re not as vibrant as you once were. You’re dropping leaves. You look like you have cobwebs, for crying out loud! Please, please talk to me. Tell me what’s bothering you. What!?! There’s someone else? Who is it? I’ll kill ‘em!
But the relationship is not over. Much of the time you can save your plant—without harsh, harmful chemicals. So let’s talk about some common houseplant pests and tell them to leave our loves alone!
Signs of houseplant pests
We’ve all been there. Happily tending to our plants, a slight concern in the back of our mind that one of them doesn’t look as healthy as it did in the summertime. We shrug it off as less light and winter dryness and keep watching it, watering it just enough, rotating it toward the sun, everything we’re supposed to do, and yet, we still feel like something isn’t quite right. Then one day, we can no longer ignore one or more of the following signs:
- A plant that suddenly stops growing or looks stunted
- Changes in leaf color or texture (they turn yellow or brown, curl up, and/or fall off)
- Webbing on the underside of the leaves
- Unusual shine and sticky stuff that drips off the leaves
- Black smudges or areas that look moldy
- Tiny white or green bumps under the leaves
- Tiny insects fly around a plant any time you disturb the leaves
Our hearts sink when we see this. Once you see it, you want to attack. It triggers violence in many of us. We’ve worked so hard to nurture this plant and now some bug is going to kill it! What have they done for our plant baby lately?
Who is it? Types if houseplant pests
Before you can eradicate the pest, you need to know who you are dealing with. Let’s start with some of the common pests and how to identify them :
- Aphids: curling, wilting, yellow leaves? These guys particularly love ornamental peppers, hibiscus, and herbs. They look like tiny black, green, red, yellow or brown teardrops clustered under the leaves or on new growth (it’s tender, you know). The suck the sap out of your plant and secrete that sticky stuff we mentioned above, called honeydew.
- Spider mites: is your plant looking webby? Are the leaves spotted or mottled-looking? Look closely at that delicate webbing–you may even need a magnifying glass–do you see very itty-bitty red spiders? They’re kind of cute, aren’t they? Unfortunately, they can cover an entire plant with that webbing, so don’t get gushy about them. They’ve got to go!
- Whiteflies: dying yellow leaves, stunted growth, and small clouds of flying white moth-like insects every time you jiggle the plant? Check the undersides of your plant for evidence of their sap-sucking activities. You will also see honeydew. You will most likely see these guys on your poinsettia, hibiscus, and ivy plants
- Fungus gnats: these guys are more of a nuisance than a serious pest that will kill your plant. Still, who wants a cloud of tiny black flies buzzing around their plants? Not us! Only the adults fly around, and the good news is, they don’t eat the leaves of your plant. Unfortunately, the eggs they lay deep in the soil hatch larvae that feed on the naturally-occurring fungi in potting mix.
- Scale insects: Stunted growth? Dropping leaves? Fluffy white wax under the leaves and the place where the leaf meets the stem (a.k.a. leave axils)? Sooty, black moldy spots? Honeydew? This is a broad collection of houseplant pests, the most common of which is the mealy bug. You will find clusters of them and their salmon-colored eggs underneath that fluffy white wax.
And if none of these are sounding familiar, check with your local county extension office. They will have the most up-to-date information about common pests in your area as well as recent invaders. Try this link for an office near you.
Natural remedies for houseplant pests
By now you may thoroughly have the heebie-jeebies–we do, just thinking about these pests. But we love our plants, right? We wouldn’t do anything to harm them? And yet, this primal instinct to kill the bugs rises to the surface. Before you head to the hardware store for industrial grade insecticide and a taste for blood, remember that you have people in the house–maybe even children and pets. And oftentimes, this stuff may kill your plant. So take a breath–or several–in a quiet place. Think about Mother Earth and the bees and butterflies, and commit to trying a more gentle approach.
- Cease watering and especially fertilizing. Houseplant pests love the sweetness of the plant food and the moist soil.
- Start with a clean, soft cloth and wipe your baby down. Many of these pests like to live in the dust that accumulates on the leaves of the plants. This action alone will dislodge many of the pests we mentioned above.
- Remove damaged leaves and stems–especially the ones with really big infestations.
- For the stationary bugs, (the non-flying variety), you can gently dab them with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol. Just be careful not to get any on the plant, as it will cause damage.
- Mix up a natural insecticide. You have two options here: the first is to mix a natural liquid soap (like Castile, not dish soap) with water and spray it on the problem spots. A 2% mixture is usually about right (1 heaping tablespoon to one quart of water), but if it seems to be damaging your plant, back it down to 1%. A second option is to mix 2 teaspoons of neem oil (which is anti-fungal and good for that sooty-black mold we talked about), 1 teaspoon of natural liquid soap with 1 quart of water. Spray it the same way you would your first option.
- And as a last resort, especially a plant with a really bad case of mealy bugs, surrender. Save your other plants and dispose of the infested one. it’s sad, but it is sometimes a necessary sacrifice.
Prevention: keeping your houseplant from becoming someone’s dinner
Of course, the best way to keep your houseplant pest-free is to take some preventative measures. Inspect any potential purchases carefully for pests before you bring it home. Quarantine new plants for about three weeks before you let it mix with your other plants. And check all of your plants regularly for pests–every time you water, ideally. Wipe them down often and read up on each particular plant to make sure you are providing an ideal environment for it. Reach out to the people at your local greenhouse and ask their advice. And know that you are not a bad plant parent if you get pests. You are loving and attentive, and deserve healthy plants!