Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (3/23/07)

Whiteflies are amongst life’s learning experiences. In fact, a learning experience is an actual failure which the politically-correct try to transform into a potential success with the phrase “learning experience.” The purpose of such polite obfuscation is to put a pretty face on an ugly event. “A learning experience” is in the same politically-correct category as “at heart he’s a really nice guy” which means “he’s a real s.o.b.” or “she meant well” for “she really messed up.” However, with “learning experience” the politically-correct are surprisingly right. Gardening is jam packed with learning experiences.

The first horticultural learning experience is: “Vigilance,” to echo my flame-tressed Überfrau. Those small little white things flying around, ensconced on the underside of the leaves aren’t harmless. They’re the al-Qaida of horticulture. They suck the life out of plants. When discovered, spring into action, don’t wait around, as did I, to see what will happen in the vain hope they’ll go away by themselves. They won’t. They’ll destroy. They’ll multiply exponentially ad infinitum into a Malthusian nightmare. “Apocalypse Now.”

With a four stage life-cycle, whiteflies begin as eggs, scarcely visible to the naked eye, laid by adults on the underside of leaves. Then emerging as crawlers, they wander the leaf’s underside until they pierce a vein with their needle-like mouth parts and begin sucking the phloem (life juices) out of the plant. Remaining immobile as nymphs, they keep on feeding. After about ten days, they stop feeding and mature as pseudo-pupa. Finally, they emerge as adults, flying and laying eggs. As with all rat finks, they leave refuse, ironically called “honeydew,” which attracts sooty molds, resulting in an unsightly, sticky mess. Gunk City.

Armageddon has arrived when the plant is alive with whiteflies, covered with eggs, crawlers, nymphs, pseudo-pupa, dying with curled, desiccated leaves, and oozing a sticky mess. Then, the only thing to do is to sack the infected plant and debris around it in a sealed plastic bag, dump it in the garbage can pronto, and dispatch it to Environmental Services.

Last fall, I brought two flourishing Genovese basil (Ocimum baslicum “Genovese”) plants I had raised from seed into our house. Within two weeks they were covered with whiteflies. I wondered “why me?” After a few moments several reasons came to mind, and I forsook my theological inquiry. Carelessly, I hadn’t made sure they were free of whiteflies. Ever vigilant my Überfrau, Gretchen, discovered them. I learned to inspect plants regularly, especially those coming from nurseries which, as with hospitals, harbor many ailments.

If, on the other hand, hope is warranted, grab a hand sprayer loaded with either insecticidal soap or botanical insecticides. Available commercially, both have low toxicity for plants and mammalians and act and degrade rapidly. Avoid pesticides unless you want to poison the atmosphere and kill the friendlies in the bug world. Systemic assaults work well, but don’t eat the fruit, leaves, or stems of the plant. In the morning or evening, spray the underside of all the leaves. Then, keep doing it several times until there’s nary a sign of a whitefly.

No Albert Schweitzer’s “reverence for life” when it comes to whiteflies. For them, vengeance and extermination. Sans merci. As my aged Aunt Emily told me just before I was shipped overseas, “Smite them, dear sweet boy, smite them hip and thigh.”

Sadly, there is no cure, only control. Working three ways, insecticidal soaps and botanical insecticides stop the adults from flying and the colony from laying more eggs and suffocate the remaining members of the colony.

Happily, there’s a secret weapon, yellow sticky paper. Whiteflies like yellow and stick to the sticky paper. The paper is good as an alert for the first signs of whiteflies and as a means of control.

Whiteflies have natural enemies. Green lacewings, lady bugs, minute pirate bugs, big eyed bugs, damsel bugs, tiny black ladybeetle, and parasitic wasps like to eat whitefly eggs and nymphs. They should be released gradually throughout the growing season and in the evenings.

Elimination isn’t possible. Control is. Fresh Genovese basil, along with all manner of flowers, plants, vegetables, and herbs, is worth the vigilance and effort.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007

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