Written a couple years back for the Contra Costa Times — C
My ferns seem to have made it through the winter outside. There are three of them. The two birds’ nest ferns are sending up new flat fronds through a nest of winter-killed foliage. The third, a staghorn, barely hangs on in its favored spot on the fence beneath the juniper. Houseplants all, I exiled them to the elements in October.
This was tough love. A few months of careful cleaning had failed to rid the ferns of their infestation of scale. Small armored relatives of aphids and mealy bugs, scale are one of a fern grower’s worst enemies. Insecticides capable of killing the insects are often dangerous to ferns’ tender foliage. Besides, I don’t particularly want to breathe the stuff in. So out they went, in the hope that one of California’s many scale-eating insects would do the job.
We acquired the ancestors of our current crop of scale five years ago, in an Aglaonema. The plant was a memento of a former neighbor. When we took it, we didn’t know about the stowaways beneath the leaf stems.
We were a little distracted.
Our neighbor Helen was in her thirties, lithe, blonde, and compassionate. She’d moved in after a string of noisy tenants, and her tranquillity was a relief. We never became best friends, but in the year and a half we knew her, we appreciated the kindness she showed and did our best to return it. Sometimes our dog Zeke would howl in anguish in our absence; Helen would speak comfort to him through the wall. When she felt too ill to go out, we’d bring back groceries for her. She never asked for much, in errands or in the rest of life. The last time I talked to her we talked about unattainable wishes. Hers brought me up short: simply to live with her daughter in a real home.
Helen was not our neighbor’s real name. AIDS is an unpopular disease, and the families of its victims still contend with public fear. Helen’s mother, when we’d meet her dropping off her toddler granddaughter for a short visit, was self-conscious and uncomfortable. When Helen died, she spent no more than a day sorting her daughter’s things, taking a few heirlooms for the toddler, then asked a few neighbors to take what we wanted before the trash people came. Becky took a plain white bowl and the Aglaonema.
I once bought a blue VW beetle from a friend, a law school graduate heading overseas. The car ran perfectly until he handed me the key, at which point the engine welded together. Friends said the car died of grief over John leaving for Tibet. So it was with that Aglaonema. They’re among the easiest houseplants to maintain, as long as you don’t let their feet stay wet. But once Helen was gone, this plant was done for. Over the next three years I tried my hardest to keep that thing alive, but to no avail. Each new green leaf would bring a surge of hope, which withered as the new leaf yellowed from the base. Eventually, I hardened my heart, told myself the memories were what mattered, and tossed the plant on the compost heap.
In the meantime, the scale had jumped to my other houseplants.
Scale are tenacious insects. Like their more vulnerable aphid cousins, they live by inserting a tube into a plant’s leaves or stems and drinking sap. They look, to the untrained eye, like drops of wax. Small and mobile when young, they find likely spots on a plant, insert their feeding tubes, and secrete a waxy shell that protects them from most enemies. It also cements them in place. This is no hindrance to reproduction: scale reproduce parthenogenetically, without males. Every so often, baby scales will crawl out from under their mother’s armor, and begin life on their own.
Plants generally have sap to spare, and a few scale should pose no particular threat to a healthy Aglaonema. It’s the volume that makes a difference. Each adult scale can produce hundreds of offspring. Under such an onslaught, even a healthy plant will suffer and die.
A simile looms, but I’ll resist it. Scale spreads far more easily than AIDS, and to far less effect. No need to trivialize people’s suffering with cheap literary devices. Besides, contagion is what life does. Living things find places to live, and do their best to live there. There’s no real insight in that statement: it’s essentially a tautology.
The problems arise when one side wins permanently.
By the time I tossed Helen’s plant, the scale had killed a first staghorn fern, several pelargoniums and a philodendron. I battled them with rubbing alcohol, which strips the wax and dehydrates the insects, and with brute force, crushing them with my fingernails. I’d win long campaigns, only to be surprised when reinforcements appeared from beneath the leaves of my ferns. Eventually, I sent the ferns out into the yard.
And they’ve survived. And they’re not the only things that have survived. Among the bright green fiddleheads are bright tan scale, looking tanned and rested after a long dormant season. We have another year of combat to look forward to.
This is not necessarily a bad thing.