1. Research your plant before you buy. If you scroll through some plant Instagram feeds, there’s a never-ending stream of people showing off their rare plants, detailing the conditions they keep them in, and unboxing new arrivals. In doing this, plant collectors have demonstrated that their collections are well worth the time, energy, and money they put into them. So what’s a little more research before you buy? If you are capable of doing the work to find out a plant’s light requirements, water needs, ideal potting mix, and where to get it, you can put that same energy into researching whether a plant is on the IUCN Red List or commonly poached.
2. Start the conversation. I admired many Stephania erecta “potato plant” photos on instagram over the last couple of years but did not know until recently, after reading a comment on Reddit, that there was a poaching problem. Because they are slow growing and became popular fairly recently, growers have not had time to cultivate mature specimens collectors admire for their large caudex. So, they are often stolen from the wild. I will admit it can be hard to find extensive information online, but the more we bring it up in conversation the more chances we have to get connected with someone who knows something. It seems once I started talking about plant poaching on my social media, I started seeing other people posting and sharing about it as well. To get you started, here are some Instagram users in the Philippines spreading good info (check their story highlights!): flora_filipina, halamarn, g.coronelii, darceae.
3. Know your grower. As a fan of California native plants and succulent seller, I was thrilled about the opportunity to sell Dudleya in my shop. But I knew there was a massive problem with people pulling them from their habitat along the West coast and shipping to Asia to sell. I set up a nursery tour with my grower and asked if they could tell me a little more specifically where the Dudleya came from. They reported that all their specimens are seed grown, with seed sourced from the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Theodore Payne Foundation, or a private grower licensed by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. Because of the work that these organizations do to preserve California’s native biodiversity, I was even happier to support a grower that worked with them. I realized knowing more about where out plants come from can only be a good thing, and it can only help to normalize asking these questions.
4. If you have outdoor space, plant natives. Removing plants from their habitat doesn’t just affect the plants, but the insects that feed on them and animals at higher trophic levels that feed on those insects, and so on. If you want to support native ecology where you live, plant native plants! This is a huge topic I will get into in other blog posts. For now, my favorite entomologist, Douglas Tallamy, has a lot more info about how to do that on his website. In California, Calscape can recommend plants based on your address. If you don’t have outdoor space, consider supporting your local Native Plant Society.
5. Don’t location tag. Often without knowing it, well-meaning people take photos of plants in the wild and post them to Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, or elsewhere. The growing reserves of digital data from social media as well as academic sources or citizen science apps can easily be misused by poachers. Read more here, and maybe consider leaving location info out if you are posting a photo of a plant in the wild.
6. Support tissue culture. If you have been a houseplant hobbyist for a year or two you might remember when Raphidaphora tetrasperma was a sought-after plant that could only be found in the US as an import from overseas. Suddenly, a similar-looking plant under the name “mini monstera” appeared at Lowe’s, then “philodendron minima” at Home Depot, and Raphidaphora tetrasperma* (with an asterisk) at Armstrong Garden Center. Plant collectors put their collective heads together to deduce that the new r. tetraspermas flooding the market were slightly different in appearance and must be the result of tissue culture, a method of propagating plants from cells in sterile glass containers. Suddenly plants were being resold with the qualifier “REAL” or “TC,” with some collectors turning their noses up at the “fake” r. tetrasperma. But tissue culture shows real promise in saving plants from extinction. For example, Tree of Life Nursery has started a tissue culture program with the goal of mass producing Dudleya for the retail market, lowering the price point and eliminating the incentive to poach. And what’s not to love when every tissue cultured plant you collect is a hopeful symbol of one that got to stay in the wild.
7. Buy small. Chances are, the smaller a plant you buy, the younger it is. And younger plants are more likely to have been cultivated by humans, since they require less time to start. Plants stolen from habitat may be larger and show signs of damage, weathering, odd shapes, and torn up roots. So if you need a quick rule of thumb to go by, always favor the small, clean looking, well-rooted guys over bigger messier looking ones.
Do you have any helpful tips or illuminating experiences? Share in the comments!