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The Houseplant Black Market

Is our love for houseplants fueling wild extinction?

IN THE EARLY MONTHS OF the COVID-19 pandemic, at any given hour, you might have found me hunched over and gently tending to a new houseplant as I sheltered in place. The emergence of a new monstera leaf provided a moment of unadulterated joy. The drooping of a Pilea sent me deep into the caverns of the internet for clues about its distress. I also fretted over the declining health of a black velvet alocasia that seemed unmoved by my increasingly desperate efforts as it lost one leaf after another.

I was not alone in these fevered pursuits. During the pandemic, the world experienced a surge in demand for houseplants. Especially for those isolating in urban areas, houseplants offered a way to bring a bit of the natural world indoors. 

Plants demand our care, and in turn, we are rewarded with new roots, larger leaves, or perhaps a blooming flower. They offer important lessons about the species-specific nature of care. Some plants want rainwater instead of tap; others need regular pot rotation or longer periods of elusive “bright, indirect light.” 

During lockdown, new plant owners noticed—perhaps for the first time—the lively qualities of plants, how their leaves lean and twist toward the sun. I took daily photos of one cactus, impressed at how even this relatively slow-growing plant could move so steadily toward the light that I could visually measure time passing when it often felt like it was standing still. 

My own interest in houseplants was initially professional—I’d spent the past several years researching and writing a book about the global illegal trade in cactus and succulent plants—but it soon became personal. I spent my weekends repotting cactuses, succulents, and broadleaf plants into new containers with better soil, obsessively misting them with a spray bottle. I triumphed one Friday night deep in the heart of the pandemic by fighting off a particularly bad case of scale on my prized monstera using countless cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol. By the time I finished six hours later, it was nearly two in the morning. 

And so, the rise of the pandemic plant parent blazed into our collective consciousness, soaring on the backs of Gen Z and millennials’ social media accounts. So-called “plantfluencers” offered tours of their indoor vegetal kingdoms. Across TikTok and Instagram, they gave tips on propagating, keeping baby plants alive, mindfulness, and interior design. And with this craze came a surge in demand for houseplants—the tulip mania and orchidelirium of our times.

The rise of the pandemic plant parent blazed into our collective consciousness.

IT’S NOT SURPRISING THAT speculative markets for rare and unusual variations of popular houseplants soon joined this skyrocketing demand. Prices for variegated forms of monsteras, philodendrons, and other aroid plants rose to absurd heights online, reaching into the high four, or even five, figures. Individual cuttings of variegated Monstera albo were selling for thousands of dollars. Particular cactuses and succulents, too. The rarer, the weirder, the better. This was pure pandemic plant mania. And yet as both a researcher and budding houseplant enthusiast, I became suspicious of an untested narrative gaining traction in the press. I began to see articles suggesting a link between the rise of pandemic-fueled plantfluencers and the illegal trade in cactuses and succulents, especially wild-harvested ones. Did COVID-19, among its many horrific consequences, also lead to a pandemic in illegal plant trade?

In May 2021, I received a call from a reporter for the New York Times asking me to comment on a major bust of rare and endangered Chilean Copiapoa cactus in Italy. There, authorities confiscated more than 1,000 wild-harvested plants in one collector’s greenhouse. The plants had been illegally smuggled into Italy. The next month, the same newspaper reported on an emerging succulent crisis in South Africa, where high unemployment and poverty—made all the worse by lockdowns—appeared to have collided with one of the world’s epicenters for succulent biodiversity, the Succulent Karoo bioregion. 

Many of these South African succulents were in high demand globally before the pandemic, something I had already seen while researching in places ranging from Europe and the United States to South Korea. But the pandemic, it seemed, may have altered how desirous collectors could obtain them. Before COVID, most people caught illegally harvesting plants in South Africa were foreigners from East Asia, North America, or Europe trying to directly export poached plants in luggage or by mail. But in recent years, officials have seen more local plant harvesters, people desperate for economic opportunity and enticed by money from overseas buyers. 

This past summer, on a preliminary research trip to the Succulent Karoo, I saw for myself how these new global connections were quickly depleting highly endemic and rare succulents. I met young men who were in direct touch with plant buyers abroad and transit actors. They regularly received custom orders for wild-harvested plants. I also saw thousands of confiscated plants in cardboard boxes waiting to be replanted by conservation officials. Some of the boxes represented what might have been the entire population of a species, now completely missing from the wild. The staff and officials I met were often despondent, angry, and frustrated over a lack of resources and inability to stop the problem.

But similar stories existed before the pandemic. Over a course of a few years in the late 2010s, several foreign nationals were apprehended, charged, and ultimately prosecuted in the United States for illegally harvesting and attempting to ship the succulent species Dudleya farinosa taken from up and down the California coastline. But despite media reports suggesting a veritable assault on California’s flora, what is especially remarkable to me is how the poaching of both Dudleya in California and myriad succulents in South Africa can often be traced to just a handful of extremely well-connected people. In both countries, two of the largest busts involved the same person. Incredibly few individuals can play an oversize role in illegal succulent trade. And though it is easy to villainize the notorious, poachers don’t drive the market—consumers do. The conservation community can celebrate the arrest of kingpins, but that kind of focus lets plant parents off the hook for—knowingly or not—purchasing dubiously sourced plants.

I also saw thousands of confiscated plants in cardboard boxes waiting to be replanted by conservation officials. Some of the boxes represented what might have been the entire population of a species, now completely missing from the wild.

REPORTERS OFTEN ASK  me to estimate the monetary global value of the illegal trade in cactuses and succulents. But putting firm numbers behind illegal activities with any real degree of accuracy is a hard thing to do. The illegal plant trade has been humming along since 1975, the year the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) first went into effect. Before that, such trade could not technically be labeled illegal because no international regulatory framework prohibits it. I think it will take more evidence before we can claim that COVID-19 definitively led to a surge in the illegal plant trade, even while understanding the pandemic certainly sparked both a surge in demand for exotic houseplants and helped transform supply chains in illegal goods. 

A lot has changed since 1975. With an established interest in plant collecting across many cultures and technology that helps facilitate it, that trade has evolved faster than CITES can keep up. It’s a complex issue, but learning to cultivate sustainable, ethically sourced plants is possible. Plant lovers can remain dutiful in confirming the origins of their green friends, particularly when purchasing plants online and from unverified sources. 

If plantfluencers and plant lovers make concerted efforts to support plants sourced from sustainable approaches over those that focus on criminalization and prohibition alone, it might help curb the illegal market and direct some profit from the multibillion-dollar global houseplant economy toward local communities. Who better to steward this change, to cultivate and prepare your next favorite plant, than the people who have lived with them the longest?

Learn more about house plants by purchasing your copy of The Cactus Hunters here

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