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Aspirin, Baking Soda, Castile soap: The ABCs of Home Remedies

In the hilarious comedy, 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding,' Michael Constantine plays an all-wise, all-knowing father who cures all problems from blight to heartbreak with a generous dose of Windex. Needless to say, some folks on Internet garden sites recommend the use of Windex to combat Japanese beetles. However, before any further exposition occurs, let me be clear that I am not advocating the use of Windex, Avon, Listerine, or any other proprietary product for usages not approved by the manufacturer, the appropriate state and federal agencies, or Martha Stewart. But there are some products that are routinely mentioned, hyped, or seriously recommended as effective agents in the interminable war of rosarian against disease, insect predators, and other elements of nature.

Some of these products and usages have the empirical weight of history if not modern laboratory experimentation to justify their application. Others are of relatively recent discovery. However, all remain controversial, at least in the world of roses.

Aspirin - For your roses, not you

Aspirin is considered a miracle drug since it is recommended for everything from heart disease prevention, to headaches, strokes, and various other stress disorders. Now it is also touted as a potentially major factor in the treatment of roses (and other members of the flora community). The theory is that the salicylic acid already present in roses as a defense against insects and diseases can be activated and enhanced by the application of a solution of aspirin in water. The dosage is 3 aspirin tablets (325 mg) dissolved in four gallons of water. The solution is sprayed on both the tops and bottoms of the foliage of the rose. If the theory is correct, then the roses should be less susceptible to the ravages of powdery mildew, various insect infestations, and other diseases harmful to roses because the defense mechanisms of the rose would be enhanced and reinforced.

Whether this works or not is another question. Certainly there have been people willing to testify to the positive outcomes of such a regimen. And my own anecdotal evidence is that the roses seem to be healthier for the activity. However, prominent rosarians and scientists believe that the aspirin mixture does not, in and of itself, activate any defense mechanisms on the part of the rose, that spraying the solution on roses will result in foliage damage through burns, and that the whole idea smacks more of home quackery than a home remedy.

A refinement of the aspirin/water mixture is the use of Alka-Seltzer, which is already water soluble as opposed to the tedious task of pulverizing tablets in your mortar and pestle, especially if the latter has rotted from disuse.

The cost of the aspirin remedy: 5.4 cents for three aspirin.

Baking Soda plus or minus

The use of baking soda mixed with water (and, later other ingredients) first appears in the American Rose Annual in l922. In a short note, Jesse Currey, the director of the Portland International Rose Gardens, related that Dr. Arthur de Yaczenski, a Russian plant pathologist at the University of St. Petersburg during the time of the last Czar, had remarked that the best treatment for powdery mildew was a combination of baking soda and water, sprayed on the foliage of the roses. The proportion for this decoction was one ounce of baking soda to one gallon of water. From that time to this, the baking soda mixture is constantly being rediscovered by a new generation of home remedy rosarians, although the proportions of the mixture have now stabilized at one tablespoon of baking soda to a gallon of water plus a little lightweight horticultural oil to act as a surfactant Scientists at Cornell have concluded that the baking soda combination does mitigate the maleficent presence and effects of powdery mildew. However, many rosarians believe that the beneficial effects of the concoction are significantly inferior to the more targeted efforts of petrochemical remedies.

An early enthusiast, the Reverend Sulliger of Washington state added a small amount of washing ammonia in order to combat aphids and was pleased with the resulting rout of the little beasties. Latter day enthusiasts have added other elements, including antiseptic mouthwashes, Lysol, and tobacco teas. However, the National Organic Standards Program has only officially embraced the baking soda mix plus surfactant in its purest form as useful and effective. The theory is that the baking soda mixture increases the alkalinity of the surface of the foliage to the point where acid-requiring fungi cannot establish themselves.

Interestingly enough, prior to the suggestion that baking soda be used to cure and prevent mildew, some exhibitors had been using a heavier mixture to remove mildew from the foliage of roses before exhibiting them. And it is not uncommon for the preventative power of the baking soda mix to be recommended for all fungal disease inclusive of blackspot and rust. In any case, the roses must be watered generously before spraying and the spraying must be repeated every seven or ten days to work effectively over a long season.

The cost of the baking soda for a one-gallon mix: five cents.

Listerine

Listerine or other antiseptic mouthwashes have been recommended to get rid of bacterial blight and other rose pests requiring a germicide. The theory seems to be that whatever removes germs will do the trick even if the germs in question are not located in or around the mouth. The formulations range from half Listerine and half water to using the mouthwash at full strength. Of course, the antiseptic can also be used to sterilize pruners or loppers in dealing with surgical cures for cankers, blights, and undetermined diseases. And some authorities argue that the fifty per cent solution of Listerine will act to deter aphids and other sucking insects. It is, of course, daunting to think that something you swirl in your mouth for 30 seconds or so scares small insects and other predatory suckers by killing them.

The cost of Listerine in its original formulation is $6.29 a liter.

Soap - Old fashioned soap

The soap in question is not modern detergent soap, but rather old fashioned fat and lye soap. John Starnes aka THE GARDEN DOCTOR of Tampa, Florida reports that Southern gardeners have been using a soap and water spray for over a hundred years. One to three tablespoons of 'Kirk's Castile' soap is collected from a cheese grater and then dissolved in a gallon of hot tap water—it may take up to two days to dissolve completely and it should be shaken, not stirred to dissolve the lumps—and poured into a spray bottle or garden pump to remedy problems with either fungal diseases or insects. The spray must be sufficiently generous to leave the plants dripping with the mix and it must cling to the foliage. Repetition of the spraying every seven to ten days may keep the plants relatively disease and insect free. Some vegetable oil helps the mixture to cling to the foliage.

The mixture changes the foliage surface to an alkaline one for funguses that require an acidic host. The insects are either suffocated through interference with their breathing apparatus or by penetrating their outer protective shells.

The cost of a grated half bar of 'Kirk's Castile' true soap is about $1.30.

Conclusion

Clearly, the cost of the remedies suggested above is within the budgetary restraints of the most senior of citizens. And yet that should not be overstressed. While the cost of the acquisition of most petrochemical solutions is very high, the per application cost may be competitive in most instances. The beauty to the home remedy approach is that the initial cost of application may be incidental to some other worthy purpose—like headache remover, refrigerator de-odorizing, or washing your hands.

And there are always days in which the garden reveals some new outrage visited by unforeseen pests. And the regular nurseries and garden centers are closed. But something must be done. My friend the hybridizer and plantsman, Kim Rupert, suggests that if something must be done, water will suffice for some of the same effects achieved by other home remedies. An application of water can establish a film on the surface of foliage and make it hostile to fungus implantation, or clog up the breathing apparatus of aphids. Needless to say, it does not have the panache of baking soda.

Windex will not actually cure everything from blight to heartbreak, but it did accomplish the appealing result of permitting Michael Constantine to do something without doing any real harm. The Greeks probably had a word for it.

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