Home & Garden Columns

Getting the Real Dirt on Smuggled Plants and Seeds

By Ron Sullivan
Friday July 14, 2006

So you don’t wear sweatshop clothes or eat veal or plant invasive exotics. Now that the bulb and seed catalogues are starting to come in the email, there’s one more ethical matter to consider. 

The trade in smuggled plants is at least as dangerous to conservation as the trade in smuggled parrots. Even some legal trade is imperiling species. 

Every plant is native somewhere. Somewhere in the world, those daffs and lilies and snowdrops and tulips just pop out of the ground with no help from anyone. Some are too gorgeous for their own good. 

It’s a good thing to want a piece of wild beauty where we can see it every day. 

That impulse gives rise to learning and research and exploration, all great things. It gives rise to some of our best aesthetics: bonsai, for example.  

Bonsai can epitomize the problem with this trait. I have heard and read and felt objections to taking bonsai subjects from the wild. 

The practice risks the life of the tree, and what perverse practice endangers a creature precisely because we admire it? Trophy hunting comes to mind.  

Gardeners have the advantage of being able to reproduce our favorites, not just harvest or hunt them. 

We can boast that we’re preserving a genome, as with Franklinia alatamaha; that lovely tree exists only in cultivation, and only because a few were collected before the wild population vanished. 

The problem is that we’re also removing our prizes from their species’ gene pool by growing them miles or continents away. That limits the value of piecemeal preservation.  

There are ways to stay virtuous. The first is not to collect from the wild. There are always exceptions, but it’s a good thing to be conservative about.  

Another is to find out where the plants we buy come from. A surprising number of plants, especially bulbs, still originate in the wild; it’s still cheaper to pay a gatherer than to propagate them. 

Often these are plants that mature slowly, especially from seed. Greenhouse space is expensive, and slow turnaround of stock requires financial investment and gambles on fashion changes, new regulations, and disease.  

The Netherlands remains foremost in the flower-bulb industry, though too often as a broker for wild-collected plants.  

Such collecting has rendered, for example, Cyclamen mirabile officially endangered in its native Turkey, though bulbs are still being exported. Stricter standards are being imposed and treaties like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) slow down dubious trade. Indigenous propagation projects are blooming in many places, too.  

Read labels carefully. Nina T. Marshall’s The Gardener’s Guide to Plant Conservation warns against “ambiguous phrases, such as ‘nursery grown’” that can just mean that the wild-collected plant has done time in a greenhouse before hitting the retailer. 

We can question bargains, and deal with reputable sources who in turn deal with other reputable sources, like native plant societies.  

The best thing is to learn, learn, learn about the plants we love. That will give us tools to figure out how not to love them to death. 


Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in East Bay Home & Real Estate. Her column on East Bay trees appears every other Tuesday in the Berkeley Daily Planet.