Tiny whitefly has big impact on ficus hedges: Gulf Stream, Briny Breezes, Manalapan, Ocean Ridge, Palm Beach

By Antigone Barton

The little white fly that arrived about six months ago is so small that a magnifying glass is recommended to properly search for it.

But since its arrival, it has stripped away barriers between public and private property, cost scores of homeowners tens of thousands of dollars apiece, and done what neither drought or native plant enthusiasts could do — made people question the value of their ficus hedges.

The whitefly, which hails from Asia, has done this by sucking dry the leaves of the ubiquitous, but also Asia-originating ficus benjamina, turning common privacy hedges into filigrees of brown branches.

“It’s hard to believe an insect could do this,” Mike Zimmerman, owner of Zimmerman Tree Service and president of Friends of Mounts Botanical Gardens. In its impact on the South Florida landscape, he added, “other than lethal yellowing I can’t think of anything that’s been as devastating as white fly. Possibly more so — it only came a few months ago.”

In that time, he and other whitefly watchers agree, it has been carried by winds — and sped on its way by Tropical Storm Fay — as well as by landscapers carrying trimmings from one town to the next, and by new plantings of bushes and trees.

As a result, Greg Rice of Hulett Pest Control said, “From waterfront homes to suburban landscapes, it’s everywhere.” Vigilance is critical, agree those who have spent recent months chasing the whitefly. They point out that the insect takes time to settle in, going through a couple of generations before defoliating a plant enough to kill it.

“People should be monitoring their hedges. Buy a little hand glass so they can look,” Zimmerman said. “Look for signs whether you treat or not treat, you’ve got to monitor, because this is a very fast-growing infestation.”

Whether a whitefly is spotted or not, he said, some property owners are opting for preventive treatment. The most proactive community, he believes, has been Palm Beach.

“They’ve nuked the place. I don’t think a white fly could survive there,” he said.

Gulf Stream began its efforts to alert residents over the summer, using its automated telephone messaging system to spread the word and the town’s September newsletter to reiterate the warning, reminding residents: “This hedge helps protect your privacy and adds to the charm of the town.”

Neighboring Briny Breezes has sacrificed several hedges to whiteflies, Rob Purcell, president of the community’s corporate board said. The town has treated surviving hedges and has used its newsletter, The Briny Bugle, as well as its closed circuit television station to ask residents to look for signs of infestation. Now, he says the hedges that were getting skimpy are coming back, in town and at the neighboring Ocean Ridge Crown Colony community.

Manalapan also used its town newsletter to publicize the parasite’s arrival, but the pest may present less of a nuisance in this town, which until recently was the only municipality to ban exotic plants. The town repealed the ordinance last spring, but some sizable properties maintain a tradition of being ficus-free.

The oceanfront estate owned by the environmentally minded Ziff family is one.

Only native plants are used on the land, property manager David Rathbun said. “It’s part of our design concept and it’s good for our environment,” he said.

The former Vanderbilt estate also seems to be ficus-free, according to its property manager, but owner Emmy Haney, who is staying at La Coquille Villas during renovations to her home, adds she has nothing against the hedge. “We have it a La Coquille and I love it.”

Still, the blight has likely taken some of the bloom from South Floridians’ affection for the ficus.

“I haven’t heard a lot of people say I’m getting rid of my ficus, it’s getting too expensive,” Zimmerman said. “I have heard a few comments — if it dies, it dies, but I’m not spending any more money.”

Still, confronted with the expense of replacing rather than treating the plants, he said, “the infestation seems likelier to turn people away from ficus in planning their landscape than to move people to tear out what they have.” Differing philosophies on treatment offer another dilemma.

While pest control companies routinely recommend treating the leaves as well as the roots of infested plants, Palm Beach County commercial extension agent Bill Schall cautions against spraying foliage.

“At least seven good insects are killing the white fly. If you spray foliage, you will kill them, too,” he said. He also points out that in some communities, hedges stand over a dozen feet tall. “You don’t want to be blasting that stuff up in the air.”

Zimmerman disagrees, saying that a root treatment can take four to six weeks to work.

“If you’ve got an infestation you’ve got to spray, because you’ve got to knock the infestation down,” he said. “You don’t have four to six weeks.”

In addition, spray can tackle the Sri Lanka weevil — an insect that “notches” the leaves of ficus, according to Paul Sugrue, technical director and staff entomologist for Nozzle Nolen.

“We’re trying to kill two birds with one stone.”

The company won’t spray higher than 8 feet, he added.

All say that while people and pets should avoid contact with the stuff used to treat roots or leaves while it’s wet, it is not considered to pose a hazard once it has dried.

The biggest harm may be economic, says Schall.

“Some communities have miles of ficus — in a community with five miles of ficus each round of treatment can cost from $10,000 to $20,000,” he said. For that reason the future of the ficus may be tied to the future of the whitefly, he said.

“A lot of these communities are attached to ficus benjamina. It was an easy-to-maintain shrub. Now, all of a sudden, it’s a hard-to-maintain shrub.”

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