What’s Wrong with My Fiddle Leaf Fig?

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When I first came upon my ficus lyrata–the botanical name for the fiddle leaf fig–looking like this, I thought that I had underwatered it and my own neglect was responsible for this ugliness.

But after I watered it–and leaves started falling off–I thought “uh-oh. Something else is going on here.” I actually had to get a hand lens to see the spider mites on it–and they didn’t pass my usual test of “shake the plant over a white piece of paper and study the moving dots.” Nothing was moving but there were clearly mites all over it.

So I took it to the shower for a quick bath of insecticidal soap.

What’s interesting–if you remember my post about the web building spider mites covering the mums in my office–last week this plant was fine. And it’s about 3′ tall–you can see that these are not the leaves of a small plant.

Oh well. It will recover or it won’t. I will just have to watch the other plants around it. I am not sure if snake plants get affected. I suspect not, but you never know.

Houseplant Pest Habits

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Yes, those are mealy bugs. Generally they are very easy to deal with, particularly when they are located where they are in this photo. A little alcohol on a cotton swab will wipe them right off.

But that begs the question. Where did this large critter come from out here on the end of the leaf? There are a couple of smaller ones with him (it?)–in fact this whole plant was infested at one point. That’s how I caught these guys so quickly. I was watching for more.

You see, not only do mealies have a nasty habit of hiding in the crevices of plants–places like unfurling leaves and stem/leaf junctions–but their eggs can also live in the soil for more than 2 years.

That’s probably how so many of them sneak into our homes to begin with.

And that again is how we know Stephen King doesn’t garden. Eggs that lay dormant for over 2 years and then become a full-fledged infestation? Sounds like a horror movie to me!

Well, That Escalated Quickly

Whenever I lecture about house plants, I get questions about insects. And I always joke that we know Stephen King isn’t a gardener–and the way we know this is because some of our common garden and house plant insects are so scary that he could write novels about them alone.

I will never forget one of the original X-Files shows. It was about a giant flatworm. The concept doesn’t sound scary but it was enough to make me stop watching the series forever. I said to The Spoiler–nope. I have to garden with those things.

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I was a little appalled when I saw this. I had been closely monitoring this plant. I had seen these flowers wilting one day.

On the second day, the whole plant was wilted. So I gave it lots of water and it revived. Today when I re-visited it to check it for dryness, this is what I found–the entire flower stem covered in webs and spider mites–visible spider mites.

Spider mites are funny creatures. They love warmth, dryness (lack of humidity) and they reproduce every three days. They’re members of the arachnid family–true little spiders.

Some make webs and others don’t. You’re lucky if they make webs–you stand a chance of spotting them quickly.

Still, these are on a plant that’s just a seasonal-type plant that I would quickly discard if it were mine. It’s in my office hallway with several other mums–so no real loss if anything else there gets infected. But I moved them out of the way just to be sure until I have permission to discard them.

What does this tell us? Check your plants–even at times when it seems as if they are not actively growing. Plant pests can become active and get out of hand very quickly–and if you’re not careful, you’ll lose a plant you care about!

Be Ever Vigitant….

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Remember this lovely euphorbia from Wednesday? It’s relatively new to me. I acquired it when I was getting the plants for my container lecture.

I have never been particularly attracted to this type of plant but the coloring was so pretty on this one that I succumbed. This is euphorbia trigona rubra.

About a week ago I was getting dressed and I happened to glance over to the window where this is. The sun was coming in just right. And I thought that I saw something odd on the “thorns.” So I resolved to check it out when I watered later that day.

I am a huge believer in trying to water and tend to your house plants in as much natural light as you can. Here in the northern hemisphere, that’s getting harder to do as we approach the winter solstice. I try to pick a weekend day, mid-afternoon, when the light is good. I discover a lot of things that way.

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In this case, I discovered these: whitefly eggs and larvae. So the plant is now isolated and I will have to treat it with something organic to remove the eggs.

And the quote at the top of this post? It’s one of my favorites from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Dogberry, the ineffective sheriff, is the one who speaks it, about trying to catch miscreants.

The whole thing is “be ever vigitant, I beseech you.” Of course he means vigilant. And if we are to outsmart house plant pests, that’s what we will need to be!

Missing Petals?

I used to have a border of rudbeckia in my wildlife garden. But as in any monoculture, it gradually became a habitat for four lined plant bugs that disfigured the foliage. When other insects started chewing the petals off the bright yellow flowers, I ripped the whole thing out.

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Of course a few have self-sown, but because there is no monoculture, and because they are mingling nicely with other plants (if not actually being overtaken by my supposedly dwarf hibiscus syriacus) I don’t have the problem with insects anymore.

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Interestingly enough, the insects that eat the flower petals seem to have found a container with some annual daisies in it. Almost as fast as the daisies open, their petals are gone.

Here’s a closer look at the damage.

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What’s causing this? In my case, I am sure it is earwigs. They are about the only pest of the numerous possibilities that I know that I have in abundance.

If you are seeing this sort of damage and aren’t sure what might be causing it (and don’t think earwigs are a possibility for you) some other possible causes are the notorious Japanese beetle, or believe it or not, striped or spotted cucumber beetles, which are pests of far more than cucumbers.

I did find a cucumber beetle of the striped variety in my vegetable garden (where I am not growing cucumbers) but 1 beetle is not doing all my damage, surely. I think he ventured over from a neighbor’s yard and probably went right back.

And as for Japanese beetles, this year, I haven’t seen beetles of any kind: not our “June bug” types, nor the asiatic garden beetles or the Japanese beetles. It’s a little odd. (But I am not complaining!)

Should We Worry About An Insect Apocalypse?

While we’re talking about controversy, let’s discuss, some of the “wild and crazy” headlines about insects–yes, you read that right, bugs!–that have been making the rounds of news–both regular and social media.

There was the climate change fueled nest of hornets in Alabama that was as large as a car (here’s the link to that story in case you happened to miss it).

I sound a little skeptical but the story is actually a little horrifying. The Alabama state entomologist talks about these large colonies of hornets actually causing deaths because hornets can inflict multiple stings.

At the same time, other articles are talking about terrifying declines in insect populations and what that might mean for life on earth. We’ve all read the stories and seen the slogans about how at least 1/3 of our food is pollinated by bees for example. Apparently more than just our pollinators are in trouble but “bugs” are not a topic that is a warm and friendly dinner-table type conversation.

I have read some articles comparing the insect decline to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Here is a link to one of those articles.

But of course there are other articles targeting the methodology of this type of research. The Atlantic, in particular, has a very well-done article about how we should definitely pay attention to what’s happening but we shouldn’t begin to completely “freak out.”

So between the fact that some folks think that all our bugs are dying off and others have to deal with hornets nests the size of small cars, it’s hard to know what to think. I do think that perhaps we ought to be more careful with our pesticides–but that’s as much for our health as it is for our invertibrate friends!

Pest Patrol

It’s that time of the year–although in the garden, as soon as there is green, any time of the year is time for insects.

One thing I am always sure to talk about when I lecture is insect life cycle. Many insects in my part of the country can simply be ignored. This may not be possible in warmer parts of the country where ignoring an infestation just permits continuing infestations.

But in my cold climate, most insects only have the ability to have one life cycle–or one chance to breed, reproduce, chew and die.

If I had to worry about repeated infestations, I would surely have to be more proactive.

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So when I see these rose sawfly larva on my rose leaves, I know that they are going to disfigure the leaves and then they will pupate and become the tiny wasp-like insects that they turn into and fly away and that will be that.

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You can see the little larva here on the leaf. While it looks like a caterpillar, it’s not: it’s a sawfly larva. Why am I making this distinction? Because I could spray bT all day on this and it would have no effect. BT only affects caterpillars. Know your insects.

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It’s the same with the hydrangea leaftier. Most years they are so minor that I just ignore them completely. If an infestation seems to be getting out of hand, I cut them off, bag them up and they’re gone. That solves the problem for several years. The moth that this caterpillar becomes is an unremarkable tan and brown–nothing worth writing home about and certainly nothing worth poisoning a plant or the earth over!

But the point about both of these insects is that their caterpillar stages are relatively short-lived. True, the rose sawfly can cause quite a lot of leaf disfigurement in a short period of time, particularly if you can’t tolerate that look.

But I will repeat: is it worth poisoning your earth, your plants and possibly yourself over? Catch it early and the sawflies succumb nicely to being sprayed off with a hose. If you need something stronger, some insecticidal soap or a great OMRI registered product called Rose Pharm works.

But I’d never resort to anything stronger than that. And even then, because those products will affect the pollinators, I would be extremely careful with them.