Nothing looks dreamier than a bedroom full of plants. I love the thought of waking up to a room full of greenery—until I think about all the bugs that could be living among that greenery. It’s impossible to guarantee that your plant will never get pests, but there are some ways to diminish the chances. Jesse Waldman, director of marketing and e-commerce at Pistils Nursery in Portland, Oregon, explains that step one is making sure you’re purchasing a well-cared-for plant.
“When your plants are stressed, they actually can attract pests,” says Waldman. “Poorly cared-for plants, a plant that’s experiencing stress, whether that’s water-stress or light-stress, or just any of those sorts of environmental factors that make your plant happy or unhappy, if it’s stressed out, it’s possible that it will become more likely that it will get a pest.”
If your plant is healthy, you don’t really have to worry about attracting bugs.
“There are bugs in our home, whether we like them or not. Fruit flies show up magically after an apple sits out for too long. Ants just are genius, little critters at getting inside. Bringing in houseplants isn’t going to really increase that in any specific way. Like a spider that found his way into your home—if there are some plants there, it might choose to make its web between your plants rather than between your curtains and your window, but that same spider’s going to be there one way or another.”
Keep in mind that houseplant pests, like mealybugs or aphids, aren’t bugs that you’re going to find crawling around on your pillow. “They’re there for the plants,” he says. Either way, I don’t want them where I sleep.
How to find a healthy plant
If you’re shopping in person, take a good look at a plant before you bring it home. “A little brown spot or a little yellow lower leaf doesn’t really indicate a problem,” he says. But if you’re seeing widespread problems like uncharacteristically pale foliage or spotting patterns on the leaves, that plant could be a stressed-out pest magnet.
“When you pick out that plant that you want, definitely spend some time with it. Look under the leaves. A lot of pests don’t necessarily show up on the tops of leaves, rather on the bottom. So, you want to flip some leaves over. Some pests are quite obvious and can be seen with the naked eye, like mealybugs, white powdery things that hang out typically in the little nooks and crannies of the plant… But some of them, like spider mites, are really, really small and actually quite challenging to see with the naked eye. So with those, you’re going to be looking for webbing on the underside of the leaves.
To increase your chances of getting a healthy plant, Waldman recommends shopping from a nursery instead of a big box store. Yes, the plant will likely be more expensive. But if bugs are a serious concern, it might be worth it.
If you’re shopping for a plant online, Waldman says to lean into the reputation of the seller.
“Do they have reviews on their website? Did the reviews seem positive? Are people recommending this place? What does the website say about plant care? What is their policy if there are any issues?” he asks. “You just want to feel confident that the place that you’re buying from is high quality and they have some sort of [return/refund] policy in place.”
Plants to shop and others to avoid
No matter how healthy a plant is, some plants are pest magnets.
“For example, there’s [a plant] called alocasia stingray, which is a really cool looking plant, has a really interesting leaf, but spider mites absolutely adore that plant,” says Waldman. Same with hoya compacta, a plant with a curly leaf that’s sometimes called robe hoya. “They’re really cool, but mealybugs love that plant.”
Anecdotally, Waldman says some plants that they hardly see pests on at Pistils Nursery are sansevierias, ZZ plants, and calathea. But every plant has the potential for a pest issue.
New plant routine
Once you get a new plant, you may want to stash somewhere like a bathroom for a few days to allow any critters like spiders or beetles that may have hitched a ride in on the plant to crawl away. It’s also good to keep new plants away from others for a few days in case the plant has pests like mealybugs, spider mites, aphids, or thrips that you missed before bringing it home. To err on the safe side, Waldman says you can give your new plant a preventative anti-pest spray. Waldman recommended two natural options that likely won’t harm the health of your plant.
“You can make yourself an insecticidal soap,” he says. Use a gentle soap like Dr. Bronner’s Castille Soap ($14). Hunker reports that you can mix one teaspoon of Dr. Bronner’s soap in 1 quart of hot water in a spray bottle and use that on your plants. Just be sure to first Google and double-check if your plant is sensitive to soap. “Another option would be neem oil ($11). It’s an oil extracted from a nut of a specific tree. It has antimicrobial, antibiotic, and anti-pest killing properties.”
You can also get traps like these Gideal 20-pack yellow sticky traps ($11) which are great at catching flying pests.
If after all of this prep, there is still a chance that your plant could have pests or develop pest issues. In the same way fruit flies randomly appear in your house, pests can turn up in houseplants.
“There are no plant pests that are harmful to humans in any way,” he says. “Mealybugs, spider mites, aphids, thrips, none of these things that are going to bite you or cause you any harm.”
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