Last month, a South Korean man was sentenced to two years in prison for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of wild dudleya plants from the California coast. The small, cactus-like succulents, which grow in lotus-shaped rosettes of fleshy leaves, are so valued by collectors that, in recent years, dudleya have been pilfered by the thousands from their native habitat and shipped around the world to be sold.
The environmental impact of this plant poaching is now so destructive that in September 2021, California passed a law making it illegal to harvest dudleya from the wild without landowner permission or a permit. The misdemeanor crime carries a possible six-month prison sentence and up to $500,000 in fines.
Plant poaching can seriously harm the natural world and the diversity of species that compose it, said Jared Margulies, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama who studies the illicit succulent trade. Cacti and other succulents are important pollinators for birds, moths, and insects, and their roots are important in arid environments to maintain healthy soil and reduce erosion. “When you start removing them from the ecosystem,” Margulies said, “the cascading effects are potentially really significant.”
But unlike illegal animal trades such as those in elephant ivory or rhino horns, plant poaching often receives less attention, according to Margulies. He spent the last few years researching the booming illegal trade in dudleya — of which there are around 68 species and subspecies — and other succulents. He plans to publish his findings in a forthcoming book, The Succulent Subject: A political ecology of plants, desire and illicit trade.
International and national laws and treaties do protect many plants from poaching, but the illegal trade in endangered and desirable species is still estimated to cause as much as $2 trillion economic damage per year. And it often happens online: in Facebook groups, on eBay, Etsy, and Instagram, Margulies says.
Succulents in particular were already gaining popularity — think of the hens and chicks and jade plants that you see at nurseries and major grocery stores — when the pandemic hit and many people bought houseplants for the first time to tend to while stuck at home. But for collectors seeking unique and rare species, including dudleya, readily available succulents aren’t enough. And since these plants have adapted to live in extreme climates and to store water over long periods, they are what Margulies calls uniquely “lootable,” meaning they’re easy to uproot and then transport because they will survive weeks without nourishment.
Margulies had read articles suggesting that dudleya poaching took off as the plant became sought-after among Korean housewives and trend-seeking consumers. But on a monthlong research trip to South Korea in 2019, dudleya were nowhere to be found in Seoul’s massive plant markets and many sellers had never even heard of them, he says. Instead, Margulies found dudleya in specialized greenhouses run by skilled growers. He also concluded that many poached succulents shipped initially to South Korea went on to be exported to other markets, ending up in the United Kingdom, China, and even sometimes back in the States.
Margulies spoke with Vox about what he’s learned from his research, the biodiversity implications of succulent poaching, and why we should be paying more attention to the houseplants we buy. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The problem with “poaching”
What do we talk about when we talk about succulent poaching?
“Poaching” is a term that is applied unevenly. When illegal hunting of animals occurs in the global North, oftentimes people don’t use the term. But they’re very comfortable using it in, say, the context of sub-Saharan Africa. We should be aware of those power dynamics when particular kinds of activity are cast as “poaching” versus “extra-legal” or “illicit” or “illegal” hunting.
In the context of succulents, broadly speaking, poaching is the harvesting of wild plants in a way that is not in accordance with law. There are plenty of places where the actual taking of plants from the wild is not illegal. So when taking plants becomes illegal — as in, you’re breaking some sort of regulatory rule or law — versus illicit — as in, you’re breaking some sort of social code or norm — really depends on where you are and what you do with those plants.
California recently passed legislation to protect dudleya. It joins two other plant-poaching laws in the US that criminalize the theft of saguaro cacti and Venus flytraps as felony offenses. Do you think these kinds of laws can actually make a difference?
I am of two minds on this question. Practically speaking, having a species or genus-specific law gives law enforcement a much simpler route toward prosecuting this kind of activity.
We also know that in countries where really severe penalties have come down for elephant or rhino horn poaching, for instance, it’s often people with the least amount of agency and capacity who are often in incredibly difficult situations who are being punished, rather than people who are benefiting economically the most.
These trades would not exist if there wasn’t consumer demand. To me, that signals that educating consumers is really important. I think the vast majority of people who are buying these plants really did not have any sense of what was going on.
Are illegal succulent trades being driven by your general houseplant consumer? Or is it just collectors?
There’s no hard and fast rule for what distinguishes a houseplant enthusiast from a collector. If you wake up one day and you’ve got 300 houseplants, you might wonder, are you a collector? But it is pretty ambiguous.
If you are buying houseplants from a reputable [source], especially a local retailer or independent houseplant store, the likelihood that you’re buying something illegal or that was harvested from the wild is very, very low. I do encourage people to ask questions of those people that they buy plants from — they should be able to give you an answer. There are species of cacti that can be as old as people and take decades to be a few centimeters in width, for example. There are people who like to jump the gun on that process and want bigger plants and that sometimes motivates people toward getting wild-harvested plants.
Be wary of buying plants online, especially from international overseas buyers, but not exclusively, because there’s definitely [people] trying to sell things illegally within the US. Does the plant look beaten up? Does it have insect bites? Does it have bleaching? Indications that a plant has lived a little bit are all signals that maybe it’s not from a greenhouse, which is where you should be getting houseplants from. It’s important that we get a more informed consumer base. But I also don’t think we need to terrify people into thinking that suddenly all the plants they have in their home are illicit — they probably aren’t.
So you’re probably not fueling international illegal plant trade by searching for a succulent you saw on TikTok.
Probably not. There are exceptions. We have seen during the pandemic this huge surge of interest in plants in the mesembs family and this includes lithops and conophytum plants — cute little succulents that take forever to grow.
South Africa is experiencing an enormous problem with illegal harvesting right now, and a lot of that is being fueled by a real surge in popularity of those plants. It’s very similar to the dudleya trade, in that I don’t think this is because they are wild plants; I think it’s because these plants suddenly became very popular, and it’s easy to rip them out of the ground and ship them around the world.
How to grow “caring relations” with plants
You’ve previously talked about how much more attention is paid to animal poaching than plant poaching. What’s at stake when we talk about losing biodiversity in succulents?
Leaving aside the very legitimate concerns around morality and ethics involved in illegal wildlife trade, cacti and other succulents are integral parts of ecosystems. Some species [of dudleya] only survive on one side of one small island off the coast of California or Mexico or Baja. They don’t have replacements. Many of them don’t overlap at all — and a lot of other cactus and succulent plants have heavily restricted habitat ranges too. So the impacts of even just a couple of individual actors can be really huge. There are species of dudleya that could be poached to extinction in a day if someone wanted to. These plants can’t run away.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature now estimates that almost a third of all members of the cactus family are endangered, and ornamental collection is one of the primary threats. In South Africa, some species within the mesembs family may well have been, within the last year, illegally harvested to extinction in the wild. There are good people working on the ground who have retrieved a lot of those species to try to get them back into habitat, so all hope is not lost. The question is, what is it that we desire in wanting these plants? And can we reorient those [desires] in ways that actually enable better relations with the nonhuman world?
It can be difficult to connect directly to environmental concerns if you don’t spend time in those environments. What impact is this loss of biodiversity having on city dwellers, for example?
If we take a really big step back, cities won’t last very long once ecosystems start breaking down. If plants ceased to exist and ecosystems began to unravel fundamentally, there wouldn’t be a lot of hope left for us.
A lot of people might assume that I’m opposed to the idea of collecting or having big collections of houseplants or succulents at home. I’m not in that camp at all. We can learn an enormous amount from living with these species. Some are more well-suited to living with us indoors than others.
But it’s important that people research the natural histories of the plants people keep in their homes and where they come from, to find ways of connecting to those geographies and also the people who live with them.
A great example is a Christmas cactus — they grow in lush, moist tropical forests of [South America] in the nooks of trees, like orchids. One could argue that this is one of the most successful plants in the world. Every year, millions are bought and sold around the world, and half of them die because people leave them on a radiator or whatever. A number of the species of that family are probably going to go extinct in the next couple of decades, save major intervention, due to habitat loss and fragmentation, but also over-collection for ornamental trade.
There’s an interesting tension to sit with: this plant that’s simultaneously everywhere and yet may no longer exist in the place where it evolved over millions of years. Raising awareness around those connections is an important way to try to mobilize people who love and take care of houseplants to think about how that can relate to actually doing conservation work.
There’s a lot of talk about sustainability right now. As a culture, we’re scrutinizing our food, clothing, energy sources, and transportation choices, to better assess their environmental impact. Should we be thinking similarly about our houseplants?
We live in a deeply commodified world. Houseplants and plant life are no exception to that. One of the beautiful things about a lot of these plants is that there are ways that their lives can be made to go on. Cacti can be cut in particular ways that make them sprout “pups” — little baby cacti clones.
By developing caring relations with plants, we can also develop caring and careful relations with other people. Think about that before you go out and buy a new plant. I’m happy to see these plant exchange websites or Instagram groups where people give away plants to people who might not be able to afford them or just want them. That’s a really nice way to move into a community with folks that also care about plants and also learn a lot in the process.
One thing that makes me very sad is oftentimes you see people buying cacti or succulents, and then basically leaving them like architectural pieces in their house and not treating them like living things. And then just letting them die and replacing them six months later with another $5 plant. That’s a failure to recognize that we can learn a lot from plants [and they] do require care.