Members of the rhododendron family, azaleas are hardy flowering shrubs with large, colorful flowers. Moist soil and plenty of sun helps azaleas to thrive, but they should be taken indoors during cool Bay Area winters or any time there is frost. However, northern California, with its frequent sun and mild temps, is ideal for many azalea varieties, as is a soil pH of 4.5 to 5.5. Azaleas are susceptible to various garden pests, so they require regular care and attention.
Lace bugs feed on azaleas by piercing the plant’s leaves with their mouths to drain them of chlorophyll and other nutrients. Mottled leaves with undersides coated in brown spots, consisting of the insect’s droppings, are the primary sign of lace bug infestation. To control the pests, azaleas are sprayed with a hose to knock them loose and treat the flowers with insecticide soap. Systemic insecticides, which become absorbed by the plant’s vascular system to poison predators, can also be used.
Several varieties of mites prey on azaleas, draining them of sap. Spider mites, azalea mites and southern red mites are common azalea pests and known for their tiny size, makeing them difficult to see. Thrips, ladybugs and predaceous mites can be introduced to azaleas as a natural means of pest control. Coating azalea leaves with insecticidal soap is also an effective treatment, as is spraying the plants with horticultural oil.
Red-Headed Azalea Caterpillar
A type of moth larvae, the red-headed azalea caterpillar has a darkly colored body covered in yellow and white stripes. As it matures, the caterpillar’s bright red head becomes prominent and they grow as long as two inches, feeding on the azalea’s leaves. Typically attacking azaleas in late summer, they are harmless to people and can be removed by hand. Alternatively, azaleas can be treated with insecticide in the event a particularly difficult caterpillar infestation.
Hidden beneath an egg sack, the female scale is a small red insect with long mouth parts used to suck sap from plants. Eventually, scales, which resemble waxy white spots, release nymphs, which then feed on the azalea’s woody stems. Frequent applications of horticultural oil will suffocate scales inside their egg sacks and kill the young nymphs, though mature scales can also be picked off by hand.
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