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The houseplant trend is fuelling an uptick in succulent poaching

Tuesday, August 10th 2021, 2:50 pm - Read on for tips on how to curate a sustainable plant collection.

During the pandemic, many of us turned to new hobbies. We've seen headlines about a great bicycle boom that's expected to keep the cycling industry busy for years to come. A report released in March saw demand for baking-related products jumped 24 per cent in 2020 in the U.S., equating to $26.5 billion in sales.

Another trend that has vendors racing to re-stock shelves is houseplant acquisition, a movement fuelled by lockdown boredom and social media influencers - at the time of this writing, an Instagram search for the hashtag houseplants brings up more than 7.2 million results.

A 2020 survey conducted by Garden Center Magazine found 71 per cent of independent garden centres in Canada and the U.S. experienced a significant boost in sales during the pandemic.

But there is a downside. Recent reports in several media outlets have connected the burgeoning demand for plants to an uptick in poaching in South Africa, which is home to roughly a third of the world's succulent species.

The ecological impacts can be devastating.

When plants are removed from an environment, ecosystem services are affected, Alex Henderson, Curator of Living Collections for the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario, tells The Weather Network.

Several local insect, animal, and reptile species rely on those plants for food and water, and communities may harvest them for medicinal purposes and use them to promote tourism.

cacti (1)

"I think [poaching] impacts things in all different sorts of ways that you can't really understand," Henderson says.

"It's a global thing that just gets wider, and wider, and wider."

Officials have tried to curb plant poaching by handing out prison sentences and fines, but that's unlikely to put a dent in the demand for rare succulents, with some hauls fetching millions of dollars on the black market.


In an interview with The New York Times, Carly Cowell, a South African scientist at the Royal Botanical Gardens in England, says part of the problem is due to a phenomenon called "plant blindness" - i.e., the tendency to view plants as less important to the ecosystem than animals.

In that same article, Minette Schwegmann, the owner of a large succulent nursery near Cape Town, suggests the poaching problem will likely continue for some time as sustainable growers try to set up shop in local communities.

“If you start from scratch with a packet of seeds you won’t make a cent for four or five years,” Schwegmann adds.

cacti Conophytum calculus, pictured here, is a night-flowering moth-pollinated succulent from the Namaqualand South Africa. Conophytum species are regularly poached and sold on the black market. Photo edited in Canva by Cheryl Santa Maria. Photo source: Abu Shawka/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0.


There are ways budding plant enthusiasts can build their collections sustainably and ethically.

It all starts with asking the right questions.

"This is where you can apply some peer pressure on your local garden centre," Henderson says.

"Ask: where did the [plant] come from? How was it harvested? Did it come from the wild? Does it come from a sustainable source? And what's the name of the plant?"

The last one is important, Henderson says, because "if a plant doesn't have a name on it, there's a chance nobody knows where it came from."

cacti (3) Haworthia reticulata is another succulent native to South Africa. Photo edited in Canva by Cheryl Santa Maria. Photo source: Abu Shawka/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Part of the reason poached plants have become so prolific is because social media is designed to quickly connect customers with sellers.

When looking to buy plants, avoid clicking on, and immediately buying from, vendors who push flashy "sponsored" posts onto your feeds. Take the time to do a bit of homework to ensure the seller is reputable and has a proven track record of providing sustainable products.

And be wary of online marketplaces: A 2018 study by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) found more than 365 endangered medicinal plants being sold, out in the open, on Amazon and eBay.

One more thing to consider: succulents and cacti can be finicky plants, and not all of them are a good match for a beginner. When looking for a plant to take home, make sure you can provide it with the right environment and the resources it needs to survive.

For more tips on the ethics of plant collecting, check with your local botanical garden.

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