Monday, January 28, 2013

Tina! Bring me the ax.

Scalepocalypse 2012 2013 update:

So two things happened Saturday night. The first thing was very unpleasant. (A Pilosocereus pachycladus fell backward onto me as I was transporting it to be watered, leaving spines stuck in a small patch on my right shoulder and a somewhat larger patch on my right forearm.) The second was a hundred times worse.1

I went to pick up the Philodendron squamiferum, to take it into the plant room to water it, and there were scale insects all over the new growth. The same scale that it had on it when it arrived here.

Not so terrible in and of itself, granted. But it's what this means.

I'd noticed the scale on the Philodendron squamiferum immediately, when it arrived last May. I'd wiped off the leaves, individually, on multiple occasions, with soapy water, and sprayed every surface of the plant with neem, every time I watered, and I kept it as isolated from the other plants as possible under the circumstances. At some point, I don't remember when (September? October?), I threw some imidacloprid granules in the pot as well.

Imidacloprid is an insecticide, which is supposed to be particularly good against scale and mealybugs, because they have a waxy, water-repelling coat that shrugs off most water-based insecticides. Imidacloprid gets around this by being taken up by the plant's roots. It then circulates throughout the plant's tissues, so that no matter where the insect might bite, it's going to be sucking up a mouthful of poison as well. And then it dies.

Or at least that's the theory. But obviously: if the scale population has increased from invisibility to the point of overrunning the new growth in the span of a month, that means that the imidacloprid didn't work. And neither did the neem, or the hand-washing.

Also, I'd declared the plant officially clean, at some point last fall or early winter, and placed it with a few other important plants (Ficus maclellandii, the BDSP), on a table. Which means that there's a good chance that the other plants on that table also have scale now, scale which is resistant to the one pesticide that's supposed to be halfway decent at dealing with scale.

Which means that the week I spent dumping imidacloprid granules into all 585 plants in the basement was almost certainly wasted effort.2 It's a different infestation of scale in the basement (brought in by Aloe polyphylla instead of Philodendron squamiferum), granted, so hypothetically the imidacloprid resistance might be totally different in the basement, but what are the odds I could be that lucky? Or maybe I've misapplied it. Maybe I wash too much out of the pots when I water. In any case, it doesn't seem like the imidacloprid is likely to be helpful, which makes me REALLY GLAD I spent all that time and money on it.

Now. I had been depressed for much of the month of January anyway, because I spotted some scale on New Year's Day. New Year's was depressing because it meant that the six or seven weeks before that, when I hadn't spotted any scale, was false hope, and they hadn't gone away. So the Philodendron on Saturday night was pretty much the worst thing that could have happened: even my backup hope, the imidacloprid, is probably also false hope.

And if fairly conscientious and repeated use of neem / hand-washing / imidacloprid hasn't worked so far, then the way I see it, I have basically three options.

1) I continue to fight with the inadequate tools I have, and maybe pick up new ones.

This is a non-starter. I've already exhausted and depressed myself dumping imidacloprid into the plants in the basement. There is no way in hell I could hand-wash every leaf of every plant in the house, and it apparently doesn't even help. I might as well sing Tom Petty to the scale.3 I reached the point of not even liking plants anymore at some point last summer, and things have only gotten worse since New Year's. So I am not going to fight. I'm not going to try your home remedy for scale, I'm not going to wait until spring and then move everything outside, I'm not going to buy more and bigger pesticides, I'm not going to buy predatory mites or lacewings or ladybugs or whatever, I'm not going to try to swab a thousand plants with a 50-gallon drum of rubbing alcohol and a pallet full of Q-Tips. I refuse to hope for a cure. I also refuse to give up and just try to coexist with the scale the way I do with fungus gnats or (to a smaller degree) spider mites, 'cause scale is just too damaging, contagious, and icky. Next option?

2) I throw all one-thousand-and-whatever plants in the garbage.

Just pile them up on a snowdrift in the back yard and let them freeze, taking the scale with them. That's not really going to work for me either. It's true that I hate the plants;4 I want to punch them all in their smug green photosynthesizing non-faces until they beg me to stop. (And then keep punching them, because I ain't gonna take no orders from no plant.) But I'm not a monster;5 I'm not going to spite-kill plants that have shown no sign of scale infestation and live in a part of the house where the scale are not known to have spread. Even as bad as things are -- and it cannot be over-emphasized that things are very, very bad, the kind of bad that involves mental health care professionals6 -- there are still plenty of plants in the house that are probably fine, due to natural resistance, luck, or both. Besides which, if I were to get rid of all the gray-variegated Yucca guatemalensises and Anthuriums, I would be inconsolable, because I hate them the least.

Which only leaves . . .

3) The back-burn strategy. I take a zero-tolerance policy toward any scale sightings. I'm not even going to pretend that I can eliminate them from an infested plant. Instead, I'm going to throw away any plant that shows any sign of scale, however beloved or irreplaceable the plant in question might be. If I suspect infestation strongly enough, I'll even throw away plants that have merely been adjacent to scale-occupied plants. The hope is that if I throw plants out fast enough, maybe I can out-run the scale. Eventually, mathematically, I have to reach a point where no plants in the house are infested. Maybe I'll only have twenty plants at that point. Maybe only six. Maybe one. But eventually.

That's a pretty unpleasant-sounding idea all on its own, of course. But wasn't I the indoor-plant blogger who'd been saying that I had too many plants and I desperately needed to pare down to a more manageable number? And haven't I been saying this for pretty much the entire time I've been writing the blog? Well, what's a more manageable number than one?

So that's where we are at the moment: full metal "Tina! Bring me the ax."7

The plants Scalepocalypse 2012 2013 is responsible for killing so far (I'm keeping the list so I know what to write on the eventual memorial):

Alpinia zerumbet variegataAlworthia 'Black Gem'Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Aloe NOID, variegated • Aloe polyphyllaAgave desmettiana (?), variegated • Aloe veraAloe veraAloe veraGasteraloe x beguiniiGasteraloe x beguiniiGasteraloe x beguiniiAloe 'Silver Ridge' • Aloe 'Doran Black' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Sedum rubrotinctum 'Aurora' • Hoya polyneuraHoya polyneuraHoya polyneuraHoya polyneuraHoya polyneuraGynura aurantiacaGynura aurantiacaGynura aurantiacaGynura aurantiacaGynura aurantiacaPhilodendron hederaceum micansPeperomia obtusifolia variegataPeperomia obtusifolia variegataPereskia aculeata var. godseffianaPereskia aculeata var. godseffianaPereskia aculeata var. godseffianaPereskia aculeata var. godseffianaHippeastrum 'Red Lion' x unknown • Hatiora salicornioidesHatiora salicornioidesHatiora salicornioidesHatiora salicornioidesHatiora salicornioidesHatiora salicornioidesHatiora salicornioidesAloe striataAlworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Begonia NOID • Begonia NOID • Callisia fragransCyrtomium falcatumAsparagus macowaniiAnthurium seedling • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Begonia x 'Erythrophylla' • Begonia x 'Erythrophylla' • Aloe 'Firebird'Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Alworthia 'Black Gem' • Ardisia ellipticaFicus benjamina 'Midnight'Ficus elastica 'Tineke'Haworthia attenuataHaworthia attenuataManfreda undulata 'Chocolate Chips' • Podocarpus macrophyllusPhilodendron squamiferum8

And everything down to Aloe 'Firebird' was before the zero-tolerance policy. We're just getting started.


1 A hundred times worse, in the sense that I would rather do the Pilosocereus thing a hundred times than have the other thing happen once. And yes, I thought about this choice for quite a while: the number is not arbitrary.
2 Imidacloprid does sometimes take a month or two to build up in a plant's tissues before it reaches an effective concentration, but the Philodendron had definitely had a month or two to work already.
3 ("Don't Come Around Here No More," obviously.)
4 (Not an exaggeration. I've been getting negative enjoyment out of them for the last eight months, with the possible exception of August's Epiphyllum-and-Clivia bonanza, and I've only been willing to tolerate the misery for this long because I thought it might end at some point.)
5 (yet!)
6 An overreaction? Well, sure, I suppose for most people it would be an overreaction to go bonkers over finding some bugs on a few houseplants. You have to bear in mind, though, that I have lived and breathed indoor plants, to the exclusion of nearly everything else, for about six years. And it has made Jack a very dull boy, and I wasn't even that good at it compared to some people, but it was at least a direction, a vague plan, a sort of goal. You know: here is a thing I enjoy. Maybe I could make a self-supporting amount of money from this, somehow.
You try hating the thing around which you've let six years revolve and on which you've constructed all of your future plans, and then tell me what's an overreaction.
There is, no doubt, some sort of cautionary tale in all of this about the dangers of turning hobbies into careers. Or the dangers of being generally inept at having careers. I don't know what it is exactly, but I can smell a cautionary tale in here somewhere.
7 (Helga, I'm not mad at you, I'm mad at the scale.)
8 No, I did not get to salvage any of the Alworthia 'Black Gems.' Had 27 at the beginning of all this, and none of them have managed to not have scale at some point or another, so I am 'Black-Gem-'less for the first time in almost six years. This despite heavy and repeated neeming, a summer outside, careful inspection upon re-entry, and imidacloprid.


Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

Sorry to hear about how frustrating it has been. Those damn scale are a real pain in the ass. I think option three is a good plan. I used to be reluctant to throw out plants, but after battling bugs that just wouldn't go away many times, it started getting easier. Now, if I find a plant that I just can't cure, I toss it. No guilt. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Sorry you are dealing with this. :(

Diane said...


nycguy said...

Nothing beats physical removal, of course, but since you have so many plants, that's not going to be possible.

A second line of defense is soaking each plants in a mix of safer soap and neem, to get the creatures lurking among the roots, after you've removed the visible ones.

In desperate cases, if you have a place like a garage where you can safely do it, you can move your collection there and set off a roach bomb.

Davelybob said...

Once you finally sound the all clear , I will gladly send you back some of the Alworthia "Black Gem" I got from you. It's growing like gang busters for me.

mr_subjunctive said...


A roach bomb might be feasible, but even if it is, would it really kill the scale? Google tells me the active components of bug bombs are usually pyrethrins. I already know from personal experience that water-based pyrethrin sprays don't work on adult scale because they can't get through the scale's shell.[1] A roach bomb would have the advantage of being able to reach all surfaces of a plant more efficiently than a water solution, but some plants (Alworthia, Agave, some of the bromeliads) also have tightly-packed leaves where scale like to hide out, which spots don't seem like they'd be any more accessible to a roach bomb than they would to a spray bottle.

I mean, I'd be willing to go to a lot of effort, if the effort were guaranteed to rid me of the problem. But anything short of complete extermination is sort of a waste of my time, given the number of plants involved and their proximity to one another, because it's all too easy for a handful of survivors to recover.


[1] Technically, I've only tried this with mealybugs, not scale. It seems like scale have an even better defense than mealybugs do, though, and they are related, so I think my experience is still relevant.

mr_subjunctive said...


That would be great. (I was sort of hoping someone would make the offer. Up until all this happened, it was one of my favorite plants.)

No telling how long it will be before I can declare the crisis over, though.

mr_subjunctive said...

Plowing Through Life (Martha):

I've actually been sort of surprised at how un-upset I am, since deciding to go with option 3. It resolves a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity, and most importantly, it promises that all of this will end at some point.

Close evaluation of the collection reveals that a lot of the basement plants have duplicates elsewhere in the house, or have parent plants elsewhere in the house. It would hardly be ideal, but if I threw out everything in the basement right now, out of the 628 plants down there, I would be able to propagate replacements for 3/4 of them, from seeds or cuttings of plants elsewhere in the house. Granted, some of the plants I'd be losing are plants I'm very fond of, but I know where I could buy replacements for some of them. So I'm only really risking about 100 plants in any kind of meaningful or permanent way.

Anonymous said...

Before tossing plants I really would suggest you procure some liquid imidacloprid pesticide and a day or so after regular watering, give all infested plants a 20-30 min soak. This works quite well with cacti and succulents, in my experience anyway.

Good luck! I have already lost a couple cacti to the horrible mealybug menace this winter.

Liza said...

You have my full sympathies, mr_s. That really blows. Please let me know if I can send you any cuttings when/if you are ready.

On the bright side, you made me giggle by adding a coat to your profile pic.

mr_subjunctive said...


Well, it's been cold.

Pat said...

Squamiferum means scale-bearing, irony or spooky omen?

Just think how much space you are going to have for seedlings now.

Good luck.

Ivynettle said...

What a nightmare - I hope you get everything under control soon, without losing any favourite/hard-to-replace plants!

Though I must say, sometimes it's really a relief to just toss out some plants - lately, I'm often really glad to find an "excuse" to do just that.

As for the cautionary tale: This is why I have no interest in making writing my job. It's so easy to have something you love turn into something you hate, simply because you have to do it.

Paul said...

You situation does sucketh royally.

Personally, I would say go ahead with option #3. Especially with any plants that you find to be heavily infested, tossing them is simply a practical and effective way of tackling them. There simply comes a point when you have to pick your battles and accept that you can't save them all.

CelticRose said...

I think #3 sounds like a good option. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and start over. Hang in there.

"Close evaluation of the collection reveals that a lot of the basement plants have duplicates elsewhere in the house, or have parent plants elsewhere in the house. It would hardly be ideal, but if I threw out everything in the basement right now, out of the 628 plants down there, I would be able to propagate replacements for 3/4 of them, from seeds or cuttings of plants elsewhere in the house. Granted, some of the plants I'd be losing are plants I'm very fond of, but I know where I could buy replacements for some of them. So I'm only really risking about 100 plants in any kind of meaningful or permanent way."
This is good to hear.

Paul said...

Have you not tried white oil spraying? That's the only way I've had success with scale and mealy bugs. Neem is absolutely useless, sorry you wasted your money on that; and imidacloprid is iffy as well (not to mention a poor choice if you have a pet lizard and dog). Try it out if not, it's cheap to make, non toxic, and has few hangups as long as these are all indoor plants.

Melody said...

Ok, maybe you've reached some kind of saturation point at your house, 1000 something plants are the most that can live comfortably without having to treat as if you are a greenhouse grower. Most places with that many plants are smaller greenhouses, nurseries, or serious hobby growers, and all those consistently treat with insecticides, rotating product every few months, to keep their plants well. If that's something you aren't interested in doing within your living space, maybe you can't keep that many plants in one house without mutiple, strong, treatments or you'll need to invest in another space to be able to. Just a thought, I may be way off.

Either way, pests are the worst, so if I have anything you are interested in let me know. I'll still keep a lookout for Pandanus utilis seeds for you. There may also be small plants for sale at some of these million greenhouses down here, or do you definitely just want to grow from seed?

mr_subjunctive said...


Neem isn't absolutely useless; it seems to work decently well on spider mites for me. And the imidicloprid may or may not be useless, but it doesn't seem like it's especially dangerous, either: the granules aren't volatile, so I don't know how Nina could encounter a dangerous amount of imidacloprid, and Sheba's more exposed but also a larger animal to begin with, plus I do try to keep it swept up.

Or maybe I'm just being uncharacteristically hopeful.

Haven't tried white oil spraying.

mr_subjunctive said...


This is true, of course, though at the ex-job, I and the current greenhouse person agree that the (weekly) pesticide use there doesn't really seem to be accomplishing much. I mean, we never had any huge outbreaks of anything (except spider mites: we always had spider mites), and as far as I know they haven't had any huge problems since I left, either, but when we did find bugs, usually we just threw the plants away, rather than mess with trying to save them.

So, I mean, it's true that a lot of people with collections my size and larger may use pesticide regularly, but I'm not convinced that it would make that much difference.

Not sure on the Pandanus. For the moment, I'm not really even thinking about getting new plants, especially not new huge pointy ones. But let me know if you run into one, or seeds, and we'll see how I feel then.

Tom said...

I've never once had any luck with imidicloprid. I miss disulfotan...that stuff killed everything (but I'm pretty sure it was also an organophosphate which is why it isn't on the market least not for homeowners). I'm really sorry to hear about all the lost plants, maybe getting rid of them will finally allow you to breath?

Jonathan said...

I'm sorry; this has clearly been a beat-down over a long period of time for you.

However, I can attest that committing to a strategy like this can be really freeing once you start getting rid of plants. I had a 10x12 greenhouse full of a variety of plants have a heater malfunction and dip to about 25 degrees, and I lost about half the plants. It was pretty depressing at first, but on the other hand, it allowed me to get rid of a bunch of plants that I probably should have gotten rid of much earlier anyway. Now that everything's cleaned out, I have a much better handle on what I've got, and I was able to let go of a lot of plants that were just marginal and not really bringing me any joy but I was keeping around out of a sense of obligation.

Good luck, and keep us updated.

Paul VA said...

I wonder what type of scale you have that seem to spread so well. Ive had minors scale problems off and on over the years but they never seem to really spread to other plants (even really close ones) if im keeping them in check. Mites spread a lot worse for me.
IMO, imidicloprid takes longer and you need more of it than the box says. It should be really safe for the dog; you might already be putting it on her, its the active ingredient in Advantage.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry for the scale apocalypse, but may I just say what a hilarious writer you are?and i laughed so hard I almost peed my pants at that Mommy dearest clip

At Home with John Newman said...

"Tina! Bring me the ax." I'd read this blog just because of that statement. Ah, what a movie.

Anonymous said...

Soap and Neem may irritate scale, but Horticultural Oil kills them. Rip away any severely infested foliage first, remove any debris from the pot, put down some newspaper and spray the shit out of the plant, the pot, every nook and cranny. That oil mixture should be dripping off every aspect of the plant. Does the plant like this? No, it does not. Tough shit - it's for it's own good. The scale will die, and the plant will recover. Nut up!


plantjen said...

I have had almost exactly the same experiences you have had with scale--but on a smaller scale (sorry!), since I usually have only about 200 plants in my collection at a time.

So far (obsessed by plants for over 30 years), I have only occasionally resorted to euthanizing. (Plus sometimes the scale itself just weakens the plant so much it can't withstand the stress of my perpetual underwatering and underfertilizing).

Some plants I will never, ever, ever allow in my house again (for example, Scheffleras of any kind), because scale is guaranteed to appear when one owns these plants.

My sytemic granules (the chemical starting with "i") almost never work against scale, and I have been wondering--could this chemical lose potency with age or exposure to humidity? Or could it be that, like with today's superbacteria, today's scale just can't be controlled by the chemicals that used to kill it years ago?

Jenn said...

Battling scale here, too.
We hates it, we do.

Anonymous said...

Can you use diatomaceous earth to cut into their little bodies?