The Christmas cactus is a popular succulent houseplant that produces festive blooms just in time for the holidays, making it a great Christmas gift. It is very low-maintenance, and can survive periods of drought better than most plants.
A common problem that affects Christmas cacti is pest infestations, and one of the insects typically spotted on these plants is the scale insect.
In this article, we will discuss more about how to spot a scale insect infestation, how to eradicate scale insects, and how to prevent them from attacking your plant in the first place.
If you are faced with a scale insect infestation on your Christmas cactus and you want to learn more about getting rid of them, then keep on reading.
Scale on Christmas cactus
The scale insect is a pest that attacks the Christmas cactus by draining its leaves and foliage of their juices, or sap.
These insects have hard, armor-like scales, hence their name. They are oval-shaped, dark brown in color, and quite small, so you might not be able to spot them immediately, especially when there are only a few of them on the plant in the early stages of infestation.
A Christmas cactus that has been attacked by scale insects will look dry because the insects have been sucking the sap from it. Not only will moisture be taken from the plant, but the nutrients, too.
Another sign to watch out for is a waxy coating on the plant, especially under the leaves and around the stems.
Things that encourage scale insect infestations are overwatering and over fertilizing. Scale insects are attracted to these conditions because they know that they will have a constant source of moisture and can hide their eggs well in the plant’s foliage.
How to get rid of scale insects
It can be quite tricky to get rid of these insects because of their hard, armored bodies. There are certain treatments you can use, but you might have to repeat them several times to make sure you have eradicated all the bugs.
You can use a commercially available pesticide if you wish, and these are available in most gardening stores. But, if you want to avoid using chemicals as much as possible, you can also use your hands to pick the insects off of your plant one by one. Scale insects do not scuttle or move around as much as other insects, so they are very easy to pick off the plant.
These insects also do not explode in population too quickly, so if you do end up removing them manually, it will not take you very long. You can either use a small, sterile knife, or your fingers to scrape them off the leaves and stems.
If removing them by hand is not successful, other home remedies you can use to remove scale insects are neem oil or rubbing alcohol.
Mix two tablespoons of neem oil into a spray bottle full of water and spray the solution on the leaves and stems of your Christmas cactus. Do not neglect the undersides of the leaves, because they might be hiding there as well.
The same goes for rubbing alcohol. Spray the infested areas directly with the alcohol and this should get rid of the bugs.
No matter what method you choose to eradicate the scale insects, make sure that you repeat it every three days until you are sure there are no more insects left.
Also make sure to keep the plant far away from your other plants while you are treating it. This reduces the possibility of the infestation spreading to the rest of your plants.
What other pests can attack a Christmas cactus?
Another pest that can attack a Christmas cactus is the mealybug. This is a very common pest that infests cacti and other succulents, and they are particularly attracted to overwatered and overfed plants.
These insects are very small, but if there are many of them on one plant, they can still suck its sap to the point that they dry it out.
If you have an infestation that goes unchecked for a long time, you will notice a white fuzz on the plant which can be easily mistaken for mildew or fungi. These white fuzzy areas will appear quickly after the mealybugs have claimed your plant, because they reproduce at a rapid rate. The bigger the infestation, the more the roots will be affected and it could even lead to root rot.
Because of their small size, these bugs can crawl into the tiniest nooks and crannies of the plant, which protect them from danger or even detection.
The longer the mealybug infestation is left to spread, the more stunted the growth of your plant will become. They can even cause the Christmas cactus to cease blooming, which would be a tragedy if you are looking forward to the beautiful flowers during the holidays.
How to get rid of mealybugs
You can get rid of mealybugs using a commercially available pesticide, but there are other methods you can try if you do not want to use chemicals on your plant or around your house.
Rubbing alcohol diluted in water can be sprayed directly onto the plant, or you can spray the alcohol onto a cotton pad to wipe down the leaves and stems.
Make sure you take the plant away from your other, healthy plants so that they do not get infested or hit with the alcohol spray, to which they might react negatively.
Do not forget to spray inside the crevices as well, so that even the best-hidden mealybugs get dosed with the alcohol spray.
The white fuzz should dissolve almost immediately upon contact with the alcohol.
If you were lucky enough to catch the infestation in its early stages, you will only need one treatment, but if, after three days, there are still signs of the pests, treat the plant again until you are sure that none of the bugs remain.
The spider mite is another pest that can attack your Christmas cactus. These are common pests on indoor plants. They are actually closer to spiders, scorpions and ticks than they are to other insects.
Spider mites are small and reddish-brown in color. They like to squeeze into the little spaces near the base of the plant, and will damage the plant by sucking the sap from its foliage.
The damaged leaves will turn yellow, droop, and eventually die.
If you are not able to control the spread of mites on your plant, this can easily lead to its death.
Spider mites like the same conditions as the cactus does: dry and hot.
One obvious sign that your Christmas cactus has a spider mite infestation is if you see brown webs between the leaves and stems of the plant.
How to treat spider mites
These bugs are some of the most difficult to eradicate from your plant. It will take time and patience to eradicate them completely.
The most common solution for a spider mite infestation is neem oil, which can be a bit messy and difficult to handle. Cover the plant’s soil with some plastic and flip the plant over. Spray the entire plant, undersides included, and make sure you hit all of the nooks and crannies to affect every spider mite.
Of course, you can always use commercially available pesticides, but if you do not like to use chemicals, neem oil is your best bet.
The Christmas cactus is a beautiful succulent known for its seasonal blooms. This low-maintenance plant is very easy to grow and care for, and can go without water for longer than most house plants.
While the Christmas cactus does not need too much attention, you still have to watch out for scale insects, which are some of the most common pests that attack Christmas cacti. These are small, oval-shaped, dark brown insects that feed on the sap of the plant’s leaves and stems.
Get rid of scale insects by picking them off manually, or spraying them with neem oil or rubbing alcohol.
Image: istockphoto.com / Kathy Reasor