There is almost no area of life that isn’t impacted by our global need for conscientious consumerism, and unfortunately, houseplants are no exception. With the rising popularity of houseplant hobbyists, due to increased access to plant stores, the social internet, and a global pandemic, many regions around the world are experiencing an increasingly devastating phenomenon: plant poaching.
While this isn’t the most enjoyable topic to discuss, it is important for all plant-lovers to have the tools we need to shop sustainably, so that we can go on enjoying these precious green friends for generations to come. In this article, I will share five helpful rules of thumb, suggested by experts, to help you shop easy.
First, let’s talk about plant poaching. Over the last few years, tens of millions of dollars worth of plants have been poached from around the world. How is this possible? The answer is unfortunately simple: demand.
According to an article by The New York Times in 2019, interest in houseplants has increased exponentially over the last few years. With increased demand, plant prices in some parts of the world have increased by as much as 3000%, due in no small part to the increasing popularity of online retailers like eBay and Etsy, which have made it easier to distribute poached plants.
While it may be easy to pin this issue on more remote countries, the US and Canada produce an enormous portion of poached plants, including wild Venus Fly Traps and American Ginseng, both of which are becoming increasingly endangered. Some other countries of concern include India, Venezuela, South Africa, Peru, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Philippines, all places that house enormous portions of the planet’s biodiversity, including many specialized plants endemic to their native region.
In an interview with The Guardian, botanist Pieter van Wyk, the nursery curator at the World Heritage Site of Richtersveld, located in South Africa, described native plants so specialized that their entire species can fit into an area the size of a soccer field. Poaching a plant this rare could cause it to become effectively extinct in the wild.
This issue, coupled with the impacts of climate change, are posing a serious threat to our plant-obsession, and causing many, myself included, to question what is at the heart of the houseplant craze, and what its unforeseen consequences could be.
Sustainable vs. Unsustainable Plant Farming
Most of the plants that you see in plant stores and nurseries came not from the wild, but were seeded, propagated, or raised from tissue cultures on farms and in nurseries around the world. While this may not be the picture most of us carry in our heads, this is nevertheless what sustainable plant production looks like, because it dramatically reduces the impact on a native environment.
The houseplants we love are, for the most part, highly specialized to their climate. In the case of what we consider ‘rare’ plants, that climate may be an absolutely tiny portion of the world. Universities and botanists in many countries are working hard to engineer new plant cultivars for everything from food crops, to orchids, to rare native plants, in order to produce hardier, more sustainable practices, further minimizing our impact on native habitats. Tissue cultures, in particular, could change the future of sustainable farming.
But sustainable and ethical farming takes time, resources, and permits, something that poaching circumvents. The impact of unsustainable farming and poaching won’t just endanger the plants that we love, they will also spell disaster for their native habitats. Loss of even one species can have a butterfly effect that ripples outward, potentially crippling entire communities where biodiversity once thrived.
What can we do?
Due to increased attentiveness by governments both local and national, plant poaching is being deemed a serious threat around the world. This may not seem like good news, but it’s a step in the right direction. Without the involvement of local and federal governments, countries will have a difficult time responding to the threats posed by poaching.
Due to the increased attention on this issue, experts have been able to give us helpful tips on how to shop sustainably.
1. Shop local.
One of the biggest avenues for illegal plant distribution is the internet, where oversight is minimal. Shopping from local businesses, particularly those with transparent sourcing practices, will minimize the risk of accidentally buying poached plants.
2. If you have to buy online, do it from a reputable source.
Look for legitimate reviews, clear photographs, and professionalism.
3. Pay attention to the plant itself.
Does it have a sense of uniformity and symmetry with the plants around it? Often, this is a sign that the plant was raised in a farm or greenhouse. Conversely, if a plant seems damaged, deformed, or different in shape and size to those around it, this could indicate that the plant was not raised sustainably.
4. Examine the soil.
Nursery soil is often more sterile in appearance, and includes plenty of peat moss. Potentially problematic soil could include a combination of sand and gravel.
5. Research the plant itself.
Is the plant you’re looking at one that’s particularly endangered due to poaching? If it’s a rare plant, is it a plant that you can genuinely care for, or are you getting swept up in the Instagram craze? Trust me—the last thing I want is to diminish your enthusiasm for plants. But it’s on us, as plant-lovers in particular, to do what we can to keep our planet thriving.
Thank you for reading, and doing your part in preserving the beauty of our planet. It’s the only one of its kind! And as always, remember to share your plant-loving experience with us @houseofplantlovers. For more information on plant poaching and global conservation, I recommend checking out EcoWatch.