The Near Death of Miss Lillian

Even experienced and trained garden folks make mistakes.

It was a mistake. A bad one. The spray bottle with the neem oil was shaped just like the spray bottle of Spectracide, one I normally wield only in the most desperate of times, carefully using cardboard around it to shield other plants and spraying the grass and weed killer only on non-windy days. 

Miss Lillian was a camellia I won a few years ago from the Ocala Camellia Society. She was named after Lillian Carter, the mother of former President Jimmy Carter, and was a little high maintenance from the start, always coming down with tea scale and producing only eight or so flowers per year. I’d brought her home in a one-gallon container, chosen a spot carefully on the north side of my house and had been coddling her for a while. She had put out lots of new growth this spring and was about three feet tall. 

When Miss Lillian was younger and smaller, I used Q-tips doused in alcohol to remove the tea scale, aphids and powdery mildew. I’d do the treatment on top of and under the leaves, remove the gunk, spray them all down with water to avoid any damage from the alcohol and then, once dry, use neem oil. In April, I noticed Miss Lillian’s leaves were again covered in tea scale and I decided to get rid of the issue or resign myself to a perpetually spotty-looking plant. 

So, I grabbed the spray bottle and drenched Miss Lillian: The top of the leaves, bottom of the leaves, even rubbing against the black spots on the leaves. I thought I was annihilating the scale and giving her fresh new shiny leaves. Boy, was I wrong. 

I realized my error when I went out the next morning to water another camellia that I had moved and also treated. The leaves on both plants were twisted and distorted, curled up and brown. 

I rushed into my garage to confirm my fear: yes, I had sprayed them both with Spectracide, not neem oil. 

I also remembered not feeling well that previous afternoon. I think I got Spectracide on my bare skin without knowing it and it affected me, too. 

Lessons learned: Check the label on the spray bottle, wear gloves if you’re dealing with any kind of chemical or treatment and wash your hands afterward. 

There actually may be some life left in Miss Lillian, which is amazing!

Once I realized what I’d done, I hosed her down thoroughly, underneath her leaves as well, then raked away the contaminated mulch and leaves and got rid of them. I’ve kept her in the ground and, as of late April, she had healthy-looking green leaves. If there’s more new growth, there’s hope Miss Lillian will survive. The smaller camellia, however, did meet an early demise.

This reminds me of another gardening crime: leaving pot-bound root balls intact. 

Just plonking a plant into the ground or a container straight out of the plastic pot it came in sounds innocent. You would think that preserving those circling roots is a good thing, but it’s not.

Whether for your landscape plants or repotting a houseplant, gently loosening and even cutting roots that are growing in a circle will help them stretch out in the right direction and promote stronger growth. 

For small houseplants and new annuals, I usually take a fork and gently insert it into the soil ball and work things loose. For landscape plants, I use a garden claw to break up hard soil segments and get the roots separated. I’ll use scissors to cut into really potbound and circled roots and spread them out a bit before setting them in place. 

These steps will give the plants a much better chance of thriving in the long run.

Now all ye fellow plant lovers, do as I say and not as I do. Go forth and commit no crimes in the garden. OS

A native Floridian and lifelong gardener, Belea spends her time off fostering cats and collecting caladiums. You can send gardening questions or column suggestions to her at

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