Pests and health,  Species advice

5 steps for reviving calathea after spider mites

Spider mites are one of those pests that seem love maranta family plants like calathea.

While they have absolutely stunning foliage, their delicate often paper-thin leaves are a magnet for these critters. And the first step to dealing with spider mites is recognising they’ve moved in.

The downward spiral of a calathea

About two years ago I was gifted a beautiful Calathea Ornata from a friend. At the time I was just getting into houseplants. A brief look online said that they liked indirect light, so I kept the Ornata on my desk at work, where I could enjoy her glory every day.

Soon it started to go downhill – crispy leaves, sticky backs to them, even holes appearing in the leaves. I tried moving it out of the sunlight, easing back on the watering, and spraying with a ‘Plant Defender’ which I thought might help the leaves. I eventually took the plant home and put her in our bathroom, hoping that the steam from our showers would help.

But no matter what I did, it got worse and worse. 😢

When spider mites take hold

With the benefit of hindsight, I now know that the plant was succumbing to a massive spider mite infestation. She may have been carrying spider mites when she was bought from the shop (she came from the home decor section of a clothes store, so probably not plant care experts!). Or they may have found her shortly afterwards.

Either way, by the time I fully recognised the problem as spider mites, they’d done some major damage to her leaves.

Treatment for spider mites

I’ve written before about how I’ve suppressed spider mites in our houseplants. It’s a little harder with calatheas because with the stronger treatments there’s a risk you’ll damage their delicate leaves.

I usually dilute whatever I’m using – rubbing alcohol, neem oil, SB invigorator – to a weaker solution than recommended to start with, or test stronger solutions before spraying the whole plant.

After eradication

By the time I was confident I’d removed spider mites from the plant, there was not much of it left. Before I knew any better I’d already cut off the tattier leaves, embarrassed by my failure to keep her looking lush and perfect. And she’d stopped putting out new leaves a long time ago, probably because of the stress of the whole saga.

Drastic action was needed.

I’d read online about cutting back calathea plants to give them time to recover – as they can grow back from their rhizomes (underground stems that put out leaf shoots and roots).

I figured our poor Calathea Ornata was otherwise a lost cause, so I might as well give it a go.

Cutting back a calathea

1 | Inspect the plant’s rootball

I took the plant out of the pot to inspect the rhizome and roots and see if she needed potting into a smaller pot – particularly as she was now a much a smaller plant than she started out as.

Everything under the soil surface was white and firm, meaning they weren’t rotting or dead, and the rootball was the same size. I popped it back in the same pot, with some fresh well draining soil.

2 | Decide on your leaf sacrifices

It was pretty tough taking a pair of clippers to the remaining leaves on the plant. There were only four left, and though they mostly looked very tatty, they still had a glimmer of their former beauty.

I decided to cut all but one away, my rationale being that leaving the one best leaf would give the plant a chance to continue photosynthesising.

The leaf stems were cut back close to the soil level, and I generally tidied up any dead stalks.

3 | Treat again for spider mites

Just to be sure, I treated her again for spider mites – this time with only one leave and a stump, there were a lot fewer places for them to hide!

4 | Into a bag

I popped the whole pot into a large plastic bag, which was half closed, half open, effectively creating a mini greenhouse. And it went to live in our lean-to over the summer months, which gets lots of indirect light and quite warm.

After a month and a half, I started to see new growth appearing from the soil. Once it started to get chilly outside, I brought it back inside the house.

5 | Adjusting to life outside the bag

Once indoors, I gradually opened then completely removed the bag to give the plant time to adjust to its new conditions

A new lease of life

It now has four fresh perfect leaves, and seems happier than it’s ever been.

I’m definitely remaining vigilant for remaining or returning spider mites, just in case. And I plan on giving it as much moist air as possible using our humidifier – which calatheas prefer anyway, but conveniently spider mites also hate.

It can be tempting to chuck a plant that seems lost to pests on the compost heap, but sometimes it’s possible to revive what looks like a lost cause!

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