Bugging Out

On Being Cursed By a Prayer Plant

The first time I saw mealybugs was on my prayer plant back in Los Angeles. I had just began my obsession with plants and had no idea what I was looking at or that they were a problem; all I knew was my beautiful, leafy dark green and purple wonder was suddenly dotted with little, white furry specs. After wiping them off only to watch more reappear a few days later, I asked my neighbor, who I figured might know about these things because she was a bit farther along in her plant obsession than me.

"Ohhhhh," she said when I described what was happening. "Sounds like you have mealybugs."

"They're bugs?!" I gasped, entirely too dramatically for someone who had recently described himself as an "urban farmer" in an Instagram post.

She then went on to detail what sounded like a very time-consuming process to remedy the situation; isolate the plant so they don't spread, use Q-tips soaked in rubbing alcohol to remove the bugs you can see and then spray down the whole plant with a combination of neem oil and water, which will help kill anything you can't see and prevent further infections.

I followed the first step and isolated the plant in the dumpster.

I immediately felt guilty about it though, and prayed to the prayer plant gods for forgiveness, promising to do better the next time.

The next time came shortly after moving into our house in Mexico, which I promptly filled with every tropical plant I could find. After the first week, I noticed the white, furry monsters were back, peeking out at me from the giant pothos cascading over the top of our fridge.

My prayers were being tested.

I immediately ordered some neem oil and rubbing alcohol and got to work. I placed him in "plant jail," also known as our laundry room and apologized, telling him it was for his own good and also reminding him it was better than the dumpster.

Then I visited him once a day, dutifully dabbing the fuzzy dots which kept reappearing on his leaves, no matter how much I dabbed or spritzed with neem oil.

Two weeks later, when the problem seemed to be getting worse and not better, I decided to do what I probably should have done in the first place: search the internet for solutions. Wading through articles offering the same remedies I already tried, I found a video on YouTube with a chipper home gardner in one of the Carolinas gleefully filming her collection of porch plants, all of which were covered in mealy bugs.

She relayed into the camera she wasn't sure how it had gotten this bad (me neither, Judy), but she was not worried and over the next twenty minutes she scrubbed every plant from tip to root in water and soap (I can use soap?) and by the end of the video they were good as new. While she dunked her plants' roots into the sink, she explained how mealybugs like to lay their eggs in the dark, damp soil and if you don't get at the root of the problem (good one, Judy) you're just playing a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.

I'm playing a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.

I immediately took apart the giant plant and found hundreds of bugs clinging to the root ball (I'm itching just writing this). Over the next hour I untangled the roots and washed them in warm water with a dash of soap (because everything in the South is measured in dashes) and when David came downstairs after work, I had covered the entire kitchen counter in long, stretching green pothos vines, and was examining each one carefully, mumbling about whacking moles.

I reconstructed the plant into a couple of smaller containers and placed them around the house, eyeing them like an overeager RA, daring any bugs to show their faces. Which they didn't. Maybe I am an urban farmer.

And then I spotted them in the other five pothos I love, draped over the wall in our stairway.

Somewhere the prayer plant is laughing at me.

For weeks I've taken them in and out of isolation, washing roots and covering them with neem oil. Every time I walk up or down the stairs I examine their leaves, which despite the onslaught of bugs and my attempts to scrub them clean, have actually held up surprisingly well.

The other day, sitting on the stairs and dabbing yet another leaf with rubbing alcohol, I was thinking about what happens to these bugs in nature. Something must eat them, I reasoned, because the glorious pothos I see growing around Mérida, wrapping themselves around the trees and lining the ground do not require regular treatments with Q-tips. And living jungle-adjacent, we have our fair share of creatures traipsing through the house at any given time; maybe instead of sweeping them outside, I should be tossing some into our plants? Have I been throwing away the answer to my problem this whole time?

"What eats mealybugs?" I typed into Google, hoping it was something easily accessible. I can't be the first person to ask this. Or maybe I am? Should I make a YouTube video with my natural solution to mealy bugs? Is this going to be my big break?

But a somewhat tired woman in what sounded like New Jersey had beat me to it; it turns out ladybugs love mealybugs, so she ordered a bag of ladybugs (you can order ladybugs?) and her garage was now covered in them. As she stood there recording her mealybug-free plants, swarms of tiny red dots flew around, landing on her hair and shoulders and also the camera.

"I didn't know how fast ladybugs reproduce," she sighed, picking them out of her long blonde hair. "But I don't have any more mealybugs."

I looked at down my Q-tip and decided to keep dabbing.