I went to visit my parents last weekend, and found my mother lamenting the impending death of one of her cacti. She told me she went out there a couple weeks ago and there was this “white, fluffy looking stuff” all over it. So she called her yard guy. He said he’d never seen it before but supposed it must be a fungus of some sort and he sprayed it with something. But it didn’t work, and so I found her sadly considering digging it up and trying to find another like it. Since it was transplanted from some “native” ground owned by one of her friends, I didn’t know how likely that was, but she said maybe she’d just have to get something else. I asked if she was sure it was a fungus. She said no, but that the yard guy had squished some of it between his fingers and it was red, like blood.
I told her it sounded like some sort of bug to me. I also told her that there was a blogger I knew (that would be Debra over at Under the Pecan Leaves) who always had earth-friendly ways of dealing with unwanted visitors like this, and that I would try to ask her if she knew anything.
My mom was pretty worried, though, so we looked on the internet too. We found out that it was called “cochineal scale” and that the white stuff was a protective coating built by a bug which was sucking the cactus dry. Interestingly, these bugs are prized for their color, which has traditionally been made into an expensive red dye. Debra wrote a great article about its history (click on link above, please!) and about how she may try to harvest some herself… (I’m sure my mom would share, by the way! )
In any case, we decided to do as the internet suggested (which was the same method that Debra told me, too) and wash the bugs off with a hose. It said you’d have to keep doing it about every other week, and eventually they’ll stop coming back. We shall see. At least the poor plant looked a little bit happier after its bath! (Sorry I didn’t take an “after” picture…I thought it had been traumatized enough!)