With the plant market exploding this past year, especially the rare aroid and houseplant market, there have been more people importing plants from overseas. Indonesia and China have joined Thailand in becoming accessible marketplaces for international rare plant sales. With the surge in the number of people importing in the US, I have been seeing more and more flipping of plant material, and want to bring attention to the means by which these plants come into the hands of US collectors. The following information pertains mostly to Asia, as the regulations for exporting plant material in South America are much stricter and as a result, the nurseries that do export are alot better developed in terms of a growing operation (Ecuagenera, Ecuaflora).
From an importers perspective, you can tell if plants have been shipped illegally if any of these conditions are met,
-your plants arrive with any organic growing media (soil etc). Plants should arrive bare root wrapped in paper towel.
-your plants arrive without a PHYTO taped to the outside of the box or without a PHYTO at all
-if the seller says a PHYTO is optional and offers you the choice not to use one
“Suppose you do not purchase the phytosanitary certificate, and it so happens that the custom confiscates your order. We will only refund 50% of the subtotal (exclusive of shipping fees) by way of cash.” ~My Home Nature/Happy Forest Store
The above statement is offering the option to not use the required legal documentation.
-if there are orchids or other CITES species and you do not have a PHYTO yourself. Tissue culture plants are the exception to this.
-if the outside of the box is labeled ‘Home Goods’ or anything along those lines. The box should be clearly marked as containing plants, and if there are more than 12 plants, your import permit should be taped to the outside of the box as well as the PHYTO
Questions to Ask
-ask for a copy of the phytosanitary certificate always! make sure it has your name and contact information on it.
-ask if the seller hunts for plants or propagates. Hunting=wild collecting. Farming=wild collecting. Usually, the distinction between hunting and farming is arbitrary but farming can sometimes mean wild collecting seeds and growing from seed or holding plants for an intermediary time after collection before shipping out again. In this case, the plants might have an opportunity to grow, but in my experience there are not many exporters who maintain good mother stock, instead relying on the availability of wild-collected plants to continually supply their stocks and their buyers.
-Most nurseries that are propagating their own stock will have the capacity to import plants from outside countries that are of commercial value. If a seller stocks only species occurring in their immediate area, in my experience it seems they are more likely to rely heavily on local wild-collected plants.
-If the photos provided are of plants that are solely growing insitu, there is a good chance those are the actual plants for sale.
-If the seller provides photos of large quantities of damaged or dirty plants (plants that look like they were torn from a tree or clay bank), there is a good chance they collected in large quantities from the jungle. If there are species slow to vegetatively propagate available (https://insearchofsmallthings.com/2019/07/11/sonerila-sp-green/), you can inquire as to whether there are seeds available or whether the plants are seed grown. If there aren’t, the chance a seller will spend a year or two growing a plant to sellable size when there are hundreds available in nearby forest is low. Definitely not impossible, but in my experience not likely.
-If the seller asks you what you want, and then tells you they will source the plants in the upcoming weeks- sometimes that means obtaining from local nurseries, and sometimes it means collecting. Even if it’s from local growers, those could be wild collected as well.
Phytosanitary ≠ responsibly sourced
Nurseries can often obtain permits and export wild-collected plants legally. A phytosanitary certificate offers no guarantee that the plants were captive propagated or sustainably harvested. It instead serves as a measure of pests and diseases. Nurseries are required to have their stock examined at least annually by an agriculture officer to ensure they are not plagued by anything contagious. Inspections usually are an hour or two, sometimes longer. Each country is different in how they issue phytosanitary certificates. Just because a facility has been inspected does not mean every single plant is clean. As anyone knows who has battled some of the more insidious pests, their detection instead requires examination over a period of time.
Personal & Financial Risks
Importing comes with significant risks, especially with COVID related shipping delays worldwide. With a surge in the plant market in recent months, APHIS is becoming more strict with plant inspections. Miami, a port that historically has processed many of the plants coming into the east coast, has updated their definitions of what constitutes one plant. In the past, one species would be considered one plant. Now, each stem is being counted as an individual plant. This is resulting in alot of rejected plant material. If they have your contact info, they will usually give the option to re-export to the seller, or destroy the shipment. Every port is different, but sometimes re-export is at cost.
If you are part of the FB plant sale and collection groups you have likely observed the recent trend of ‘heat-treated’ plants. The affected plants come in mushy and smelling of ethylene. As far as I have read, the reason why so many plants are arriving to US buyers with the appearance of being cooked is undetermined. Some have speculated that Hong Kong is heat-treating plants, but I don’t there is any real evidence of this. LAX also seems to be a common denominator, and has slow processing times this year, with plants sitting for 5-8 days before being inspected and forwarded to their final address. It could be that plants are sitting on a hot tarmac for days. In any case, proceed with caution, and with the knowledge that there is a very real chance you might receive any living plant material.
Plants in cultivation have to come from somewhere. Wild collections are essential and can provide opportunities for the conservation of species long term if collected in small numbers and managed by a dedicated group of growers. However, as buyers, it is important to recognize the impact that ordering from sellers who rely heavily on ‘farmed’ or ‘hunted’ plants has. It depletes wild populations that are already facing significant pressure from more pervasive human trends. It increases the demand for rare species that can be difficult to propagate in captivity. It de-incentivizes the commercial propagation of slow-growing species by offering a cheaper, unsustainable alternative. It does not help the plants or the forest ecosystem.