Cushion scale

Heavy cushion scale populations can result in the foliage of camellia, holly, rhododendron, Trachelospermum and some other evergreen plants being covered in sooty mould during the early months of the year.

Cushion scale (Chloropulvinaria floccifera) on Holly (Ilex aquifolium). Credit: RHS/Entomology.

Quick facts

Common name Cushion scale
Scientific name Pulvinaria floccifera
Plants affected Camellia, Ilex (holly), Euonymus japonicus, Rhododendron, Trachelospermum, Taxus (yew) and some other evergreen shrubs
Main symptoms Black sooty mould on the upper leaf surface in winter-spring; scale insects and white egg masses on the underside of leaves in spring and  summer
Most active All year round

What is cushion scale?

Cushion scale is a sap-sucking insect that feeds on the foliage of mainly evergreen trees and shrubs, especially camellia, rhododendron, Trachelospermum, Euonymus japonicus and holly.

Symptoms

  • The scale does not usually affect the vigour or flowering of it's host plants, it does however produce a sticky honeydew excrement. 
  • A heavy coating of a black, non-parasitic fungus known as sooty mould can grow on honeydew on the upper leaf surface. This develops over the winter months and can persist into the summer
  • Yellowish-brown, oval scale insects up to 3mm (1/8in) long can be seen near the veins on the undersides of the leaves
  • Rectangular white waxy egg masses, up to 10mm (almost ½in) long and 2-3mm (1/8in) wide, are produced by the adult scales in spring and early summer. The remains of these egg masses can persist on the foliage throughout the year

Control

Apart from the presence of honeydew and sooty mould cushion scale does not appear to adversely affect the vigour of its host plants and so can be tolerated.

Check susceptible plants frequently from late winter onwards for sooty mould so action can be planned later in the season. When choosing control options you can minimise harm to non-target animals by starting with the methods in the non-pesticide control section. If this is not sufficient to reduce the damage to acceptable levels then you may choose to use pesticides. Within this group the shorter persistence pesticides (that are usually certified for organic growing) are likely to be less damaging to non-target wildlife than those with longer persistence and/or systemic action.
Light infestations are of little consequence and can be tolerated, but heavy attacks can be dealt with in early to mid-summer when the more vulnerable newly-hatched scales are present. Note that dead scales can remain firmly attached to the plants. The success of any treatment can be gauged by the extent to which new growth remains free of scale insects. Sooty mould will gradually flake off the leaves during the summer

Non-pesticide control

  • Where possible tolerate populations of scale insects. Not all scale insects affect the growth of plants and so they do not necessarily require control
  • On small plants sooty mould can be removed by wiping the foliage with a damp cloth
  • Adult scales and egg masses can be removed when seen (spring and summer) but this may not reduce large populations
  • Encourage predators  in the garden, some ladybirds, parasitoid wasps and some birds will eat scale insects 

Pesticide control

The best time for spraying is in June and early July when the more vulnerable newly hatched scale nymphs are present 
  • Organic sprays, such as natural pyrethrum (e.g. Bug Clear Gun for Fruit & Veg, Neudorff Bug Free Bug and Larvae Killer), fatty acids (e.g. Solabiol Bug Free, Doff Greenfly & Blackfly Killer) or plant oils (e.g. Vitax Plant Guard Pest & Disease Control, Bug Clear for Fruit and Veg) can give good control of scale insect nymphs. These pesticides have a very short persistence and so may require reapplication to keep scale numbers in check. Plant oil and fatty acid products are less likely to affect larger insects such as ladybird adults 
  • Plant invigorators combine nutrients to stimulate plant growth with surfactants or fatty acids that have a physical mode of action (e.g. Ecofective Bug Control, RHS Bug and Mildew Control, SB Plant Invigorator and Westland Resolva Natural Power Bug & Mildew). These are not considered organic
  • More persistent contact-action insecticides include the synthetic pyrethroids lambda-cyhalothrin (e.g. Westland Resolva Bug Killer), deltamethrin (e.g. Provanto Ultimate Fruit & Vegetable Bug Killer, Provanto Sprayday Greenfly Killer) and cypermethrin (e.g. Py Bug Killer)
  • The systemic neonicotinoid insecticide acetamiprid (e.g. Bug Clear Ultra) is also available

Follow label instructions when using pesticides. 
Plants in flower should not be sprayed due to the danger to bees and other pollinating insects
Inclusion of a pesticide product does not indicate a recommendation or endorsement by RHS Gardening Advice. It is a list of products currently available to the home gardener

Download

Pesticides for gardeners (pdf document)

Biology

  • There is one generation of cushion scale a year with eggs hatching in late June-July
  • The scales suck sap and excrete a sugary honeydew that coats the upper leaf surface, allowing sooty moulds to develop, especially during the winter
  • The level of infestation can vary considerably from year to year. In mild wet winters, Populations of overwintering nymphs may be reduced by a (insect pathogenic) fungal infection


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