Houseplants provide an invaluable service to the home environment, providing greenery and texture while oftentimes removing harmful toxins from the air. Unfortunately, just as in the garden, houseplants are susceptible to attacks from various species of bugs. Most bug infestations can be taken care of with ease if they are caught early on.
Houseplant bug infestation usually consists of one or more of a handful of different common bug species. Mealybugs, various types of scale, mites, whiteflies and thrips are common pests that feed on houseplants. Aphids, though usually more of a problem in the garden, can also find their way indoors to prey on houseplants. Pests are commonly found around new growth such as emerging leaves and unopened flower buds. Spider mites can be seen running all over the plant, while scale is often found in whitish patches on the underside of leaves.
The most obvious indicator of a pest infestation is the bugs themselves, but sometimes they are too small to spot immediately. A plant severely infected by bugs will often have stunted growth and damaged leaves that curl and drop off prematurely. Sucking insects such as thrips leave tiny spots all over the leaves, while spider mites cause the foliage to turn a dusty red color. Black specks and whitish patches may be evidence of fecal matter or unhatched eggs.
Use basic precautions such as checking new plants for insects. Keep new houseplants away from established plants for a few weeks until you can be sure they are pest free. Use sterilized, commercial potting soil when possible rather than dirt from your garden, as you may unwittingly transmit bugs inside. Avoid cleaning houseplants such as bromeliads with a feather duster, as you may accidentally transmit bugs between plants.
You can treat mild bug infestations by washing the plant carefully with a directed stream of water. Be sure to wash plants outdoors so that pests don't find their way out of the sink and back onto the plant. You can also wipe down leaves with a paper towel that has been dipped in diluted detergent. Try to use as few chemicals as possible, as these may burn the plant's leaves. Heavily infested plants should be disposed of before they can infect healthy plants.
Use insecticides as a last resort, as these harsh chemical poisons have the potential to cause harm to both you and the environment. Always follow directions carefully, and treat plants in a well-ventilated area such as the porch or a basement with open windows. Keep insecticides in their original containers so you have access to dosage and emergency information. Water your houseplant a day or so before applying insecticides, and keep the plant out of direct sunlight after treatment to avoid burning the plant.