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Nipping It in the Bud: The War Against Succulent Smugglers in California

A new law intends to crackdown on plant poachers in the Golden State. But how widespread is the problem really?

It was the 2017 Christmas season in Mendocino County, a coastal area north of San Francisco, and a woman was getting frustrated with the long wait at the post office. She was watching the man in front of her in line trying to ship 60 boxes to Asia. When she saw dirt spilling out of his boxes, the woman asked him what he was shipping.

He put his finger to his lips to quiet her. “Something very valuable,” he replied. 

The woman asked where he found the mysterious valuable objects. He didn’t answer her verbally, but instead pointed in the direction of the Pacific Ocean.

Thinking he was shipping illegally-harvested abalone, the woman alerted the Fish and Wildlife hotline. But X-ray scans at customs later revealed the truth: The boxes were stuffed with Dudleya, a genus of succulents also known as the “Live Forever” plant, that grows in the Southwestern U.S. Roughly two dozen species of Dudleya are ranked as rare, and half of those grow along California’s coastal cliffs.

A wave of Dudleya busts in the Golden State followed soon after the Mendocino incident as authorities up and down the coast found they had a new crime wave underway. By March, two Korean nationals were caught pulling 850 plants from rocky escarpments. In April, three more men got popped after they dug up 2,000 succulents that they were ready to move to the black market. 

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat documented the scope of the damage to the state’s flora in 2019, writing, “Investigators now believe several hundred thousands plants worth tens of millions of dollars on the Asian black market have been torn illegally from bluffs along the Northern California coast over the past several years.”

The majority of the market for the poached plants has reportedly stemmed from Korea and China. Per a 2018 story in The Guardian: “In China, they’re prized for their chubby limbs and cute shapes. In Korea, they’re a treasured hobby for housewives.” The succulents are so coveted in some regions that a single plant can be sold for up to a thousand dollars on the black market. 

In September 2021, however, law enforcement gained a powerful new tool in the state’s fight against plant poachers when California Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 223 into law. Perpetrators can now be charged with a “misdemeanor punishable by a specified fine” and “imprisonment in a county jail for not more than 6 months.” 

To make sense of this new law, I reached out to Kipp McMichael, a former board member of the Yerba Buena Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, which sponsored the legislation. McMichael, who is also the organization’s newsletter editor and webmaster, spoke to me about how succulents became so sought after in Asia and why it’s unsurprising that such a visually-arresting coastal plant could inspire a lucrative crime wave. 

Why is a Dudleya so valuable to poachers and their customers? Did millennials do this? I mean, I joke, but for real, is this a generationally-driven demand? 

It’s hard to say because houseplants have certainly seen a resurgence of interest. If you walk around hip areas in San Francisco — the other day I was walking around, and I passed two different houseplant stores. On the other hand, as a member of the Native Plant Society and other plant societies, like orchid societies and rose societies, all of those have seen a fall in membership — at least in California. I think what we’re seeing is kind of like the Dutch tulip craze from centuries back, where there’s just this lust for unusual, strange plants.

Off-the-cuff, how much would you be willing to pay for a plant? Let’s say if roles were reversed, and you were the one paying for a stolen plant.

The most I’ve ever paid for a plant was a large palm tree that was $1,400. But it was a 15-foot tall palm tree, and it was a large specimen of palm tree that grows slowly. Nor was it a native-harvested plant. There are plants in my yard that I’ve paid a couple hundred dollars for. I’ve got a cycas, which is a very slow-growing kind of xeric plant that looks like a palm tree. I paid $700 for that one.

With the Dudleya in particular, what’s the appeal for buyers?

If you’re a plant on the coast, you’re blasted by sunlight and wind, you’re drought-stressed. However, there’s also this combination of hot during the day and cold at night because of the ocean. So the plants get really colorful in the drier parts of the year. The rosette will be tucked into a granite face, and it’ll have this outer perimeter of bright red leaves and an inner rosette of these bluish, green-frosted leaves. They’re really picturesque and pretty. 

And they slowly grow and divide so that you’ll have multiple heads together. When they’re in this really colorful phase, they look like a very sculptural bouquet of flowers. I think that’s what’s really popular. 

Ironically, though, unless they’re on the California coast, on a face of a granite rock, with the wind blasting them and the ocean spray, the plants won’t have that wonderful color scheme. They will basically start looking like a healthy, happy plant, which is green, and they won’t be as striking. 

The people who’ve been busted for harvesting these succulents have largely been Asian men. And the destinations have been mostly Asian — predominantly China and Korea. Is the market mostly Asian, or is the coverage of this crime wave playing on old racial biases?

There’s obviously overtones of Asian Menace in a lot of the coverage. And so, it’s unclear if we’re getting a biased view of who the people are who have an appetite for these. I like a lot of exotic, weird plants. And I have a friend who also grows a lot of strange plants. Because he’s old and doesn’t know tech very well, I’ve sold stuff on eBay for him. The market from Asia is just stronger for all kinds of exotic plants, and they’re willing to pay exorbitant prices. 

Do you think that as the Chinese middle class continues to grow, that we’ll see more of this type of crime — whether it’s smuggling strange fish from the Baja or plants from the Pacific coast — since the market is so lucrative?

It’s also Korea. I’ve heard that most of the Dudleya craze was mostly about the market in Korea. But certainly my own experience with plants is that there’s plenty of people who really like plants. It’s widespread. Basically, any place where it’s not easy to grow a Dudleya, people will pay for them. 

The excitement of that exotic stuff is what people are after and pay for. And it’s not just Asia, there’s Europeans who do this, too. There are all kinds of plants from dry areas in Africa, Madagascar, Saudi Arabia and the Horn of Africa that are now extremely expensive — entire landscapes have been completely stripped of them by mostly European and white plant collectors. 

As a Native Plant Society member, you may hate this, but I have to ask: Is plant poaching really such a big deal that it requires a new law?

One time, I was at the beach and some kids were making a sandcastle. They were breaking the branches off of the coastal scrub bushes that were along the cliff near the beach to stick into the sandcastle. And I just took a moment to educate them and say, “Those plants grow very slowly. And so, if somebody breaks branches off every day, there’s going to be no plant left at all.” That was fairly well received. But unfortunately, if somebody’s out swiping a Dudleya, there’s going to be nothing you can do short of calling the authorities on them. 

However, Dudleya are common enough that if these people just wanted a plant for their own yard — you’re not supposed to collect them; in fact, it’s now illegal to collect them — it could easily be okay harvesting one. But these folks were taking hundreds and thousands of these plants. 

The majority of the stolen Dudleyas will end up with people who think they’re a houseplant, so they end up watering them like a houseplant, give them light like a houseplant and then they end up either dying or losing that gorgeous form and color shaped by the coast. The problem is, when they lose that unique color, those people may be interested in getting a new one, kick-starting the whole process all over again.