Houseplant Collectors Need to Worry About Plant Poaching. Here’s Why.

Those of us who collect houseplants may scour the internet for hours trying to find a specific plant to add to our collection. Many of us can find individual sellers from all around the globe selling rare and uncommon plants with little effort thanks to social media and sites like Etsy and Ebay, which allow anyone to become a seller.

We may not think to ask, when we find our wish list plant at the right price, where the plant was sourced. Was it grown from seed, produced through other propagation methods (like tissue culture), or found in nature and illegally procured for sale?

However, today’s blogpost will challenge us, as collectors, to ask this question of our sellers to ensure that we are collecting responsibly and not damaging the plants and the ecosystems those plants are a part of.

Read on to learn more about:
– the realities of plant poaching in 2021
– some plants that are particularly vulnerable to poaching
– the impact poaching has on our environment
– how we can avoid buying plants that have been illegally obtained.

Table of Contents

Plant Poaching is Increasing Around the Globe

As houseplants have become more popular over the last few years, plant poaching and theft has also increased.

The drastic increase in houseplant hobbyists is obvious to those who’ve been in the hobby for many years.

One article noted that due to the new wave of houseplant enthusiasts, the International Aroid Show went from around 500 people in a weekend to several thousand in a couple of years. (New York Times article linked here)

The International Aroid Show is an event held to learn about, celebrate, and sell aroids (many popular houseplants fall into the aroid family, such as Philodendron, Monstera, pothos (Epipremnum and Scindapsus), Anthuriums, and many more).

The demand for houseplants (and thus the amount of plant poaching) has increased exponentially since the pandemic began, forcing people around the world to stay home some or all of the time.

Many homebound people have turned to houseplants to give them a new way to connect with nature, liven up their space, and to help provide a new source of pleasure and entertainment at home.

The increase houseplant hobbyists in some areas of the world has been so large that a term has been coined to represent it, Plantdemic.

The global pandemic has also increased the amount of poaching because many people are out of work and looking for any way to make money for themselves and their families. The reality of the situation is that plant poaching is one job that requires no application and can be pretty lucrative as long as you don’t get caught.

The plants that are most susceptible to poaching are those which have gained a lot of attention on social media. Some of these plants include rare aroids, carnivorous plants, hoyas, orchids, succulents and cacti, and many others.

Plant poaching has been around for a long time. Though it isn’t as publicized as animal poaching, it has an equally large effect on the vital balance needed to maintain healthy ecosystems.

The Removal of Plants is Hurting Our Ecosystems

One example of this is the poaching of small rosette succulents, like the Dudleya pictured below, in California. These succulents help to prevent erosion on rocks and cliffs in places that are too dry for many other plants to survive.

File:Dudleya gnoma.jpg
Photo by: Geographer, “Dudleya gnoma (Munchkin Dudleya), on Santa Rosa Island, Channel Islands, California, where endemic.” 2007. Source linked here

The succulents are highly sought after and can sell for $50 or more per plant in some countries. They are often poached in the thousands, causing a devastating effect on the environment from which they are taken.

In 2019, three men were caught with more than 3700 succulents after a single road trip up the coast of California. They were sentenced to 10 years in jail after admitting to poaching and were repeat offenders.

While these particular poachers were caught, most poachers do not get caught due to a large amount of land and a very small staff to keep track of everyone and everything there.

Experts are concerned that many commonly poached plants will become extinct. This concern is validated by the large number of plants labelled as endangered which are also commonly stolen from the wild.

Many Poached Plants are Heading Toward Extinction

Venus Flytraps are a type of carnivorous plant that only occur in the wild in a very small (75-mile radius) section of the United States in the subtropical wetlands of North and South Carolina.

They occur naturally there as understory foliage and have developed their unique ability to consume insects due to the lack of nutrients in the soil.

Because they are such small, low-dwelling plants, they are easily blocked out by taller flora. Nature ensures their survival through regular natural fires which controls the larger plants from snuffing out the flytraps.

However, people have taken over some of the venus flytrap’s natural habitat and are now supressing the natural fires to control overgrowth, causing many flytraps to perish under larger foliage.

The loss of flytraps due to habitat destruction and fire suppression doesn’t account for additional plants that are poached and sold as houseplants.

And the reality of the situation with venus flytraps is that they are readily available as tissue cultured and seed grown specimens, so there is no reason to take plants from the wild anymore.

It is Especially Sad to See Iconic Plants Disappearing from the Wild

Saguaro cacti are perhaps the most famous cacti with their upturned arms. They can grow to over 40 feet tall and live for 150 years or more.

These cacti grow incredibly slowly, taking up to 50 years to reach 3 feet in height, equating to less than an inch of growth each year. They typically do not begin to grow arms until they are at least 70 years old.

These tree-like cacti, besides being living pieces of history, provide food and shelter for dessert animals.

Because of their popularity and infamy, they are coveted by many and sought after by collectors. It is for this very reason that poachers are interested in them as they can sell for up to $100 a foot.

The increase in poaching was pushing Saguaro cacti toward extinction so park rangers developed a plan to protect the remaining cacti by inserting microchips in them.

While this method has proved to be pretty effective at protecting many saguaro cacti, there are still huge number of smaller species that are also being poached to devastating levels due to their popularity within the houseplant industry.

Globally, one-third of cacti are at risk of extinction. Half of those are at risk due to poaching.

The countries that are most susceptible to poaching

There is a group of countries that are particularly susceptible to poaching due to the vast amount of biodiversity there.

These 17 countries are referred to as megadiverse. Although the countries combined account for less than 10% of the land on Earth, they house over 70% of the biological diversity.

The complete list of megadiverse countries is below:

  • Australia
  • Brazil
  • China
  • Columbia
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Ecuador
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Madagascar
  • Malaysia
  • Mexico
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Peru
  • Philippines
  • South Africa
  • United States
  • Venezuela

Poaching is one of the largest illegal trades, behind only drugs, humans, and counterfeit currency.

The Philippines

The poaching crisis is particularly huge in the Philippines.

The increased demand for plants due to the pandemic is coupled with a growing number of people who are now unemployed for the same reason and are looking for ways to make ends meet.

Houseplant popularity has risen so much that prices have increased by as much as 3000 percent.

Ways to avoid buying poached plants

  1. Get to know the seller and ask them how they obtain their plants
  2. Buy from nurseries that share where their plants are from openly
  3. Avoid buying rare and expensive plants from sellers that you do not know much about

Be particularly careful when shopping for rare aroids, carnivorous plants, succulents and cacti, air plants, and other epiphytic plants (like hoyas, orchids, dischidia, ferns, etcetera).

These plants are highly susceptible to poaching and are suffering as a result of it.

Thank you for caring enough about the plants that we love to do some homework to ensure that our houseplants are not being stolen from nature!

“It’s our job to figure out how not to kill the things we love” […] “and to use our appreciation to protect them instead.”

Quote from Don Waller as part of Crimes Against Nature, written by Lynne Warren, The National Wildlife Foundation

Summer Rayne Oakes, from the Homestead Brooklyn YouTube Channel, just posted a wonderful video to help people understand plant poaching and how to avoid buying a poached plant.

Resources used to compose this article:

Crimes Against Nature, by Lynne Warren, The National Wildlife Foundation, published December 1, 2019

Buyer beware: Do not buy poached Venus flytrap plants, by Lilibeth Serrano, US Fish and Wildlife Service, published June 17, 2020

Beloved on Instagram, succulents are vanishing from state parks. Officials blame a foreign black market., by Antonia Noori Farzan, The Washington Post, published June 3, 2019

How to Avoid Buying Poached Rare Native Plants, by Jessie Keith, Black Gold, published October 25, 2018

Plant poaching is ruining our flora and fauna, and we’re all responsible, by Victor Austria, Freebie MNL, published September 17, 2020

The Seedy World of Plant Poaching, by Gloria Beck, The Walrus, published March 27, 2020.

The Dirt On The Illegal Plant Trade, by Alexa Lim, ScienceFriday, published November 13, 2015

Coronavirus pandemic fueling plant poaching in Philippines, by Rebecca Ratcliffe, The Guardian, published September 14, 2020

How Much Would You Pay for a Houseplant?, by Gray Chapman, The New York Times, published November 11, 2019

Plant Thieves Scour Forests to Satisfy Foliage-Starved Filipinos, by Ian G. Sayson, Bloomberg Quint, published September 12, 2020

‘Plantdemic’ hits Philippines as demand for greenery grows, Bangkok Post, published November 10, 2020

‘Plantdemic’ by Michael L Tan, Philippine Daily Inquirer, published November 11, 2020

AFRICA: Towards strengthening the protection of the Mount Nimba Reserve, by Inès Magoum, Afrik21, published January 18, 2021

Poachers, beware: Collecting these 10 plant species from the wild is against the law, by Rhia D. Grana, abs-cbn.com, September 24, 2020

3 Plants We Are Losing to Poachers… Yes, Plant Poaching Exists, by Anna Vallery, OneGreenPlanet, published 2015

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