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Back to My Roots

Let’s talk about pests, baby: Thrips

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Thrips are the sneakiest pests I’ve yet to encounter, and oh my God do I hate them. Thrips may look like just a little bit of dirt on your leaf, but for something so tiny, they sure can destroy your plants. 

I had a philodendron pink princess get thrips, and almost all of the leaves are now dead. I had a leaf not unfurl because of the thrips; they love new growth. Isn’t that great? We have similar tastes. 

Even though the online plant community says that if you get thrips you basically always have thrips, I am hoping this isn’t true, because I may or may not have had a massive outbreak that I’m still recovering from — AKA religiously spraying down my plants with pesticides and insecticides. 

According to Epic Gardening, thrips are as tiny as the width of a sewing needle and can range in color from white, brown, black, and yellow. They can have wings but aren’t typically considered strong fliers; thrips spread through short flight or from leaves that touch.

I don’t have a magnifying glass, so my visual of thrips was tiny black slivers running around on the plant leaves — sometimes on the top, on the underside, or on both. They’re not too difficult to spot when moving, but when thrips are still, the naked eye would have you believe they’re a speck of dirt. 

Thrips are dangerous to plants because they eat them and, like spider mites, they suck the life out of your plant. This extraction from the plants can leave them visibly scarred and damaged, which isn’t nice to look at and can stunt the plants’ growth.

In the wild, thrips don’t live on or feed on plants during the winter, but if you own houseplants, it’s munching season all year long — which is why I had an outbreak in November. 

These pests are especially scary because they’re able to reproduce asexually, and they lay their eggs inside of the plant stem or stalk according to Epic Gardening. To be frank, there’s really nothing you can do about thrips reproducing. Their lifecycle is an added bonus, seeing as they live for about 45 days; this means the process of treating thrips can go on for a very long time, and an outbreak won’t be solved through a quick fix. 

However, if you properly inspect your plants before bringing them home, and make sure to treat and quarantine them, you can likely prevent thrips. If you do find yourself dealing with these pests, don’t fret, because there are solutions.

If the plant is really infested and the leaf damage is horrendous, you might as well just toss it. It’s going to make you feel bad about yourself as a plant owner if you have to watch it die. 

Otherwise, if it’s not too bad, spray those leaves down with lukewarm water and get ready with your pesticides, insecticides, and neem oil, because it’s about to go down. Spray those plants like there’s no tomorrow — except there is, and you’ll probably have to spray them again in the morning. 

I like to alternate the sprays I use because it makes me feel like I’m keeping the plants on their toes, and they don’t know what they’re going to get hit with today. 

During this process, I keep my infected plants away from all my others by quarantining them in the bathroom. I’m working out of a dorm, so I make do with the space. To make sure they don’t die from lack of sunlight, I leave the bathroom light on most of the day so the plants can survive as they undergo treatments.

I’ve also seen that soaking your plant in soapy water works, but I haven’t tried this method with thrips. 

People also use diatomaceous earth as pest prevention, as pests don’t have to consume it for it to work. According to the National Pesticide Information Center, “Diatomaceous earth causes insects to dry out and die by absorbing the oils and fats from the cuticle of the insect's exoskeleton ... It remains effective as long as it is kept dry and undisturbed.” However, it leaves a white, dusty residue on plants, which could be a nuisance to someone who wants to enjoy looking at their plant, like myself.

It can also cause nasal irritation when inhaled by humans, dryness and irritation when touched, and eye irritation due to its powdery texture.

Treatments have to be repeated for a few weeks. Given that the life cycle of thrips is 45 days, I’d say treatments should be undertaken once or twice a week for an extended period in order to take care of the problem for good. Some people recommend treating the plant until you don’t see any more bugs, but we know that thrips lay eggs inside the plant, so bugs could still pop up later. 

A good rule of thumb in houseplant care is to treat and clean your plants every time you water them. Typically, you’re bringing them to the sink anyway, so you may as well spray them down or wipe off their leaves. This is something I’ve struggled with as my collection has grown alongside my increasing responsibilities as a full-time student working multiple jobs, but the process really doesn’t take that much longer.

I’ve been trying to incorporate this practice into my daily routine, but I’m not perfect, and that’s fine. I say things are good as long as you’re trying and making an effort. After all, these are your plants; make yourself proud, and good luck if you find thrips.

Reach Health & Wellness Editor Iseabel Nance at Twitter: @iseabel

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