Learning to Let Go

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Sometimes you just have to say sayonara to a bug-infested plant, even an orchid. Photo: pngegg.com & pngtree.com

Question: I have 3 orchids infested with mealybugs and I haven’t been able to get rid of them. In spite of all my treatments, they just keep coming back. What should I do?

Sada

Answer: I think you know what you ought to do, but are avoiding the issue.

And I understand you perfectly. How many times have I done exactly the same thing! Treatment after treatment trying to save a favorite plant, making sure I reach the smallest crack where an insect could possibly hide, and yet just when I think I have finally won, the mealybugs return, often months later.

Then I try again… always with the same result.

Probably, like me, you tried every available treatment: insecticidal soap, neem, rubbing alcohol, pyrethrum, a highly toxic insecticide you know you really shouldn’t still be using, even ridiculous homemade remedies like vinegar spray and coffee ground solutions.

The same situation applies to both to mealybugs (like small white cotton balls that cling to leaves, roots and stems) and to their less mobile cousins, scale insects (covered with a shield-like shell). Both are incredibly difficult to eliminate.

In the end, after years of trying to eliminate the bugs, I finally had to resign myself to throwing out the infested plants. That was certainly one of the smartest moves I ever made!

I already wrote about this sad situation in the article The 30-Year Mealybug Infestation: a Horror Story.

But the good news is that I now have hundreds of houseplants, including a dozen or so orchids, and I haven’t seen mealybugs among my plants in years.

The 3-Step Approach

1.     Throw Away

Orchid infested with mealybugs.
I doubt if one gardener in 10 manages to really control mealybugs on indoor plants, so that leaves but one logical solution. Photo: wallmur, reddit.com

So, I suggest throwing out the infested plants. It’s hard to accept, but in your case, it’s the only logical solution. In gardening, one has to learn to accept there can’t be only successes, but that sometimes there will be failures. 

And a plant infested with such insidious pests as mealybugs or scale insects might infest other plants, like a sort of horticultural Typhoid Mary. As long as you have even one such plant in your collection, it will always be a threat to the others.

And when you throw out the infested plants, put them out in the trash or burn them. Never put them in the compost pile as sometimes the temperatures stay warm enough there to keep the mealybugs alive. And if they survive, they might hitch a ride back to your plants.

2.     Clean Up

Soapy water and cloth
Washing everything with soapy water. Photo: scienceabc.com

And that’s not all. The entire location where your infested orchids were housed can be a source of contamination, as mealybugs sometimes leave plant pots and lay their eggs in cracks and other hiding spots in and under nearby shelves and furniture. So, use a damp cloth soaked in insecticidal soap and give all surfaces a thorough wash down.

As for pots and saucers, before reusing them, clean them thoroughly in a solution of insecticidal soap, run them through a cycle in the dishwasher … or put them out with the recycling!

Now wait 40 days and clean everything one last time…

3.     Quarantine After Purchase

You can now purchase another orchid from a trusted source. 

Plant in isolation in a plastic bag. Ill.: Claire Tourigny

Note that it should still be isolated from all other plants for forty days: after all, who knows what’s hiding out among its leaves! 

If after this time there is no sign of mealybugs, scale insects or any other pests, you can put your new plant with the others.

And in the future, whenever you buy a new plant, be it an orchid or anything else, always put it in quarantine as well. Never mess around with mealybugs!

________________

Sometimes in gardening, you just have to be ruthless!

3 thoughts on “Learning to Let Go

  1. Patricia Evans

    I had to finally throw out a 30+ year old Jade plant because I couldn’t eliminate the scale. Of course, I had to take cuttings from this treasured plant. Happily, I can report no new scale invasion, but I have five Jade plants now that I haven’t been able to find a home for.

  2. I SO get it . . . but what is more of a bummer is that most moth orchids are disposed of immediately after bloom anyway. Few of us actually ‘grow’ them to bloom again. To everyone else, they are like cut flowers with roots still attached. That is why they purchase so many.

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