Say the words ''spider mites'' to anyone who is a houseplant aficionado and you will instantly provoke a shudder. These tiny, nearly invisible insects are so sneaky that by the time you finally see them your plant is likely beyond help.
These little varmints are quick to reproduce and multiply. They are easily hidden as they are carried from place to place, either unwarily on a new plant brought into the fold or even on our hands, our clothes and our watering cans as we move about from one plant to another doing our routine tending.
Such was the case recently when a formerly healthy English Ivy sat languishing on my windowsill. It was actually two small plants that a local garden center obligingly potted up for me in a four-inch clay pot stamped with puppy paw-prints. I thought it was fitting, since I like dogs and I like plants and I was planning a column about English Ivy anyway. I brought the little plant to the newsroom and every week or so, I gave it a drink from my water bottle.
And then one Monday morning, I noticed the plant looked a bit wilted. I thought I had given it water the previous Friday before I left for the weekend, but doubted myself after seeing the turned-down leaves. They were still dark green and healthy-looking and unfortunately, I didn't investigate them more closely or I might have come up with a different diagnosis. Instead, I gave the plant more water and went about my work.
By Wednesday, I noticed the plant still hadn't recovered. I began to wonder if I'd overwatered the little guy. Symptoms of overwatering can mimic underwatering. Plants will wilt, but usually they recover if the latter is the problem. I decided to leave it alone to dry out, but made a mental note to keep an eye on it. I still didn't take the time to examine the plant more closely.
A few years after I took my Master Gardener training, this wouldn't have happened. During that time, I never left the house without my loupe, a small hand-held magnifier similar to what jewelers use to examine precious stones. Instead of looking for diamonds, however, I would use my loupe to look closely at leaves that were mottled with spots or, in this case, to check out a plant that had taken a sudden and unexpected turn.
By Friday, the problem was quite evident. The ivy's leaves had turned from deep green to sickly brown and white. The wilting was still obvious, but by now what might have been a small pest problem had become a full-blown infestation. I didn't need the loupe to see the webs that were clearly visible and the multitudes of tiny mites crawling over every leaf and stem. Spraying now would have been useless. I knew the plant would never recover. The only recourse was to remove it from the newsroom before it infested other plants on other windowsills.
Had I pulled out my trusty loupe for a proper inspection, I would have seen the oval-shaped, yellowish or greenish-colored mites crawling on the undersides of the leaves. At the very least, without the loupe, I could have held a sheet of white paper under a few leaves and after a few shakes, might have seen the tiny creatures moving about after falling on the paper. They are difficult to see with the naked eye, measuring at around 1/50th of an inch.
But I didn't do any of that. Instead I assumed the plant's problems were water related. A rookie mistake.
Spider mites are related to spiders and ticks and are one of the most serious of all indoor plant pests because they are so quick to multiply and destroy an entire plant in such a short time. They thrive in dry, warm conditions and feast on the undersides of leaves. They move from stem to leaf by weaving tent-like webs. Spider mites have needle-like mouthparts that pierce the surface of the plant's leaves, where they feed on the sap. Leaves become mottled, wilt from the stress and eventually die.
If I had been more diligent and discovered the pest early, I would have simply washed it away with a brisk spray of water. If there were too many or if they kept coming back, I probably would have used insecticidal soap on the undersides of the leaves. But I did nothing and before long, nothing could have saved my little plant.
Now my puppy-feet clay pot sits empty on the windowsill. I haven't yet replaced it. I'm still living with the guilt.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University Extension Office of Trumbull County. She can be reached at email@example.com