green long leaf house plant with sticky leaves
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Treating Sticky Leaves on Houseplants

If you are a houseplant owner maybe you have experienced a sticky substance on your plants or plants with sticky leaves. There are many causes for wet or sticky plants, for sticky residue on plant leaves and these incidents can present quite a hassle for any plant owner. What causes it and how do you handle a plant with sticky leaves?

Sticky Plant Video

Question and Answer

Question: My houseplant has sticky leaves! It’s the only way to describe the foliage. No matter what I try the cure never seems to happen. Should I get rid of the plant? Do you know if it’s a disease or know what causes the sticky plant leaves and the cure? April, Oregon

Answer: April, sticky leaves is one houseplant problem that isn’t unique.
Since you did not mention the indoor houseplant you’re experiencing the sticky leaves on, here’s a general overview of the problem.
After you’ve brought your new plant home and its gone through the:
… it seems to happen. A sticky substance on the leaves.
One day on the way to grab your breakfast you notice the area around your indoor plant is tacky or sticky, a sticky couch, sticky floors, and the leaves are sticky too.
You step back, scratch your head and ask a few questions…

  • Did the kids spill a soft drink?
  • What caused it?
  • Do I have enough time to clean it up?

Cause of Sticky Residue on House Plant Leaves

The cause of the sticky leaf is usually scale insects on the plant. Scale insects feed and suck sap (the juices) out of houseplants.
The sticky residue on the leaves and floor is what they secrete and is referred to as sticky honeydew. Too often people only look at the top leaves. Check plants by looking at the underside of the leaves and on the stems for slight bumps of tan, black or brown color with a waxy coating. You’ll find infested plants with scale insects or cottony masses of mealybugs hiding in out of the way places and out of sight where they can be left alone.

Sticky Leaves Treatment – Controlling Scale

Generally controlling scale insects isn’t a big problem. Scale “breathes” through their “armor.” The easiest way to kill the scale is by suffocation. There are several natural methods to control or get rid of the scale insects on plants indoors.
In the early stages with a light infestation:

  • Mix 1 teaspoon of DAWN dish detergent into 1 quart of warm water
  • Dip a cotton swab into the dish detergent / warm water mixture
  • Wipe the area down completely

For large infestations place the mixture into a spray bottle and spray the entire plant with the mixture, coat the infested areas completely.
The dish detergent “clogs” or disrupts the plant scales ability to breathe.
Other additions to the spray mixture include:

  • A good plant insecticidal soap solution. The most popular plant soap goes by the name “Safer Soap” and works well if the infestation of scale isn’t extensive.
  • Another “safe option” is to try Neem oil spray for plants. Neem oil is a great overall natural product which can take also control spider mites and even fleas on pets.
  • Add a safe horticultural oil will do the trick. A word or warning – When applying any chemical, indoors or outdoors, do it carefully and follow the label directions exactly.

Before attempting to handle the pest issue check with your local nursery or garden center – and remember … FOLLOW THE LABEL.
NOTE: On indoor plants, I would use neem oil or an insecticidal soap. The horticultural oil is better on outdoor plants.
Outdoors the sticky residue usually is accompanied with sooty mold. As mentioned above horticultural oil, neem oil and insecticidal soap can all be used outdoors.

However, do not apply when temperatures are over 85 degrees Fahrenheit and beware these controls will also kill natural predators.

Systemic Control

Pest control with a spray indoors, especially in public areas adds an additional risk. Many interior plantscaping companies control plant scale and other pest problems with systemic insecticide chemicals.

Systemics work through the root system. The chemical for control is normally applied to the soil or buried in the soil where the plant absorbs the chemical through the root system and distributes the chemical throughout the plant. As the scale, mealy bug, spider mite, and other pests feast on sucking the plant’s juices out they take the chemical into their bodies which kills them. The systemic process take time – six to eight weeks is not uncommon. The systemic process is used primarily on large trees like ficus found in hotels and malls.

How to Clean Up the Sticky Liquid Stuff

Cleaning the stucky stuff off furniture versus the floor can get a little tricky. You first must remember to pick up and clean up as much of the sugary sticky honeydew goo as you can.

Start by using VERY WARM water, apply to the area with a damp cloth or mop rinse frequently in HOT clean water.
Some professionals recommend using Murphy’s Oil Soap and others rubbing alcohol and swabbing the area with a soft cloth. Make sure you test your cleaning potion on an “inconspicuous area” before you start pouring it on. You could discolor material or strip off the furniture finish.

For good plant health the most important thing to remember is maintenance – once you have control, maintain it by regular scouting of your plants for pests and plant diseases. Growers always keep on the lookout for ants. Ants are great farmers and farm the scale and aphids for the honeydew they produce. Finding potential problems early helps prevent really big problems you’ll have to deal with later, not to mention the sticky floors and furniture.

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