Criminals coaxing pedigreed pups out of yards. People looking to make a quick buck stealing copper pipes from a construction yard. We have all heard such stories of sought-after pets and products being at a high risk for theft. But what about poaching plants?
It happens all the time—and it can be big business on the black market. Plants ripped from public land can sell for thousands of dollars on the open market. Let’s look at a few of the plants experts say are the most poached in the US, and what this plundering means for the world around us.
Meet the Expert
When people think of cacti, this is often the first one that comes to mind. And though it permeates popular culture, the majestic saguaro grows in a very limited area.
“In the United States, saguaros grow in Arizona,” says Don Swann, a biologist at Saguaro National Park in Arizona since 1993. “There are a few on the other side of the Colorado River in California and in the state of Sonora in Mexico.”
Why Are Saguaro Cacti Sought After?
This species of cacti reaches incredible heights, over 50 feet tall in some cases. But it takes a very long time to grow one of these super succulents to such a height. It would take a saguaro 100 years to hit 50 feet. And therein lies the allure.
“A saguaro that is a foot tall is between 17-26 years old,” says Swann. “It is a very slow-growing plant, so when you do buy one in a nursery, it can be expensive. The temptation to steal from public lands is in part because of their slow growth rate. People don’t want to pay a lot and wait for the plant to grow.”
Poachers make big bucks taking grown plants from national or state parks—even from private property at times. Swann says the thieves typically won’t take a saguaro taller than six feet. “That would be a pretty heavy plant to lift out of the ground and put into the bed of a pickup,” he says. “It would take several people. More typically a poached saguaro would be about three feet or smaller.”
Digging up a plant from public land is illegal, plain and simple. “In Arizona, if you have a saguaro even on private property, it is protected by state law,” Swann says. “You can move it if you want to, but you need to get a permit from the state.”
Why Are Saguaro Cacti Crucial for the Area's Ecosystem?
“They are the dominant tall plant in the Sonoran Desert,” Swann says. “We have some that tower over other plants in the desert, so it is really an important habitat for birds that want to get their nests off the ground. Their flowers produce a lot of nectar for birds, and they produce a large amount of sweet fruit, which are important for animals, so they have a lot of cascading benefits to other life in the desert. We want to protect them because they are so environmentally and culturally important to the native tribes in the area. People love saguaros.”
It's because of the saguaro’s importance to the area’s ecosystem that plant poachers face penalties for poaching—even a felony.
Tips to Avoid Buying Illegally-Acquired Saguaro Cacti
“Theft of plants from national parks brings a penalty ranging from a misdemeanor with up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine to a felony, says Jeff Martinelli, acting chief ranger at Saguaro National Park. You can also net a felony charge under the federal Lacey Act, which can bring more than a year in jail and an even higher fine.
It’s important for people to be aware of the black market and to purchase plants from legitimate dealers,” biologist Swann says. Buy plants from a nursery that grows the succulent from seed, or, if you see a larger saguaro for sale, check for the required state tag that shows the plant was removed legally.
Just west of the land of saguaros, this smaller succulent grows wild in California.
According to Nick Jensen, conservation program director for the California Native Plant Society, of the 60-plus named subspecies, 42 are found in California, though the succulent grows elsewhere as well.
Why Are Dudleya Farinosa Succulents Targeted by Poachers?
The plants, also known as live-forevers and bluff lettuce, are a big target for criminals. “We have really unfortunate incidents of the plants gaining popularity in the international market, and people come over to California from abroad and harvest potentially thousands of plants in a single trip and sell them online marketplaces or elsewhere,” Jensen says. “They are making thousands of dollars from a single trip to the U.S. for poaching. It’s a problem of humans trying to make a buck out of these wild plants.”
You might be wondering, how do you get thousands of dudleya from here to there? Jensen says it’s easier than you think. “They will package them up in boxes and ship them back to their home base,” he says. “We have pictures of this from law enforcement.” And yes, taking these plants home with you, regardless of how many you pack or your motive, is illegal.
Dudleya don’t grow nearly as slowly as saguaros, but their life cycle certainly isn’t quick. Some of the plants found in the wild are decades old, says Jensen, but the succulent grows well from seed, too. A dudleya grows well from seed in a nursery and can reach a decent size in just a few years, Jensen says. They make wonderful plants for your garden.
“The international plant traffickers could probably just as effectively have grown the plants themselves in their own countries, but that just isn’t the way the market developed,” he says. “We would love to work with people where the plants are headed and see if there are ways to promote legal ways to grow them in those countries.” This would eliminate the ecological effects of poaching.
Why Are Dudleya Crucial for the Area's Ecosystem?
Like the big cacti in Arizona, Dudleya is a food source for animals in its habit, and it also helps with erosion. The plants typically grow in cliffs or other rocky areas, so when they are removed, especially en masse, the little bit of soil in its environment disappears. “You can’t remove a large amount of plants from a habitat and have everything be OK. It will take a long time to return to natural conditions, and maybe it never will,” Jensen says.
Many people think this odd-looking, carnivorous plant is a succulent, but it really is a wetland plant that is found in the wild only in the Carolinas. Regardless of its genus, it certainly has captured the interest of plant poachers over the years.
Poaching a flytrap in North Carolina has been a felony since 2014, and one man who was caught with hundreds of the plants in 2019 was hit with 73 felony counts! He made a plea deal and got off pretty light, with just a couple of months in jail and he had to replant every single plant. The increased enforcement has cut down on the thefts in recent years, though interest in these strange, smallish plants remains high.
According to the National Wildlife Foundation, the Venus flytrap is listed as vulnerable, and efforts are under way to have the species added to the federal endangered list.
You can grow your own Venus flytrap at home, from seed. Its natural environment is low in nitrogen, which is why the plant snaps up flies, ants and other little critters. They provide the perfect nutrients to help the plant thrive. At home, you’ll need moist, slightly acidic soil to have success with the flytrap. Most experts say a terrarium makes for easier home care.
More Expert Advice
So what’s a plant lover to do? Besides taking the time and effort to grow these three popular species, how can you enjoy their beauty in your own space? It is possible to find legitimate saguaro and dudleya at garden centers in certain areas of the country and on some online shops. But buyer beware: Jensen, the California plant specialist, urges people to take a couple of extra steps to be sure their purchases align with the law.
“It would be wonderful if readers asked more questions when they bought plants like this,” he says. “Maybe message the seller on Etsy and ask where they got the plant. When you go to a nursery, ask if they were grown or taken from the wild. If more people ask, more sellers will think to ask if they are getting them from a reputable source.”