Hijacked exotic plants find new roots in America


NEWS ITEM: United States Customs Service officials, acting on a tip, seized three African cycads at the Los Angeles airport. The cycads surrendered without incident.

(A cycad is an ancient, fern-like plant.)

NEWS ITEM: Authorities at New York's Kennedy airport confiscated a major haul of 1,500 ladyslipper orchids, which were smuggled into the country from the Far East. No injuries were reported.

True stories, all.

Five years ago, the United States began staging a quiet war on international plant traffickers who try to sneak rare species past its borders. Hundreds of exotic plants are seized annually by customs officials and kept in protective custody in a greenhouse in Washington D.C.

The plants, most of which are confiscated at airports in Miami, New York and Los Angeles, are endangered species that have been uprooted from their native lands. None are used in drug manufacturing. These are plants like orchids, not marijuana.

Funny, but I don't recall one episode of "Miami Vice" in which Crockett and Tubbs set out to arrest an orchid smuggler.

"I call it plant poaching," James Luby says of the practice of swiping rare plants from other countries. Mr. Luby receives some of the intercepted plants; he is curator of orchids in the Collections Department of the U.S. Botanical Garden's Poplar Point Nursery in Washington, D.C.

"Some of these people are tourists who don't know any better," he says. "Others are collectors who deliberately rape plants from their natural habitats."

Many of the confiscated plants are sent to Poplar Point and tended by the staff. Currently, Mr. Luby cares for more than 1,600 rare orchids that were torn from their homelands in China and South America. Some are worth hundreds of dollars; others, like a rare vanda coerulea from the Philippines, are priceless.

Often, the rare plants are in poor shape and must be nursed back to health. Some survive; others do not.

"We didn't set out to acquire these plants," says Elliott Norman, another horticulturist at the Poplar Point nursery. "Some are dug up by American tourists who consider themselves entitled to do a little shopping in foreign countries. They either [hide] the plant in their luggage, or stagger back to the tour bus carrying it bare-rooted in their hands."

Other exotic plants fall prey to bounty hunters who are commissioned by collectors. "Theirs is an insolent attitude," says Mr. Norman. "It's like telling someone from another country to come over here and dig up the Wye Oak."

Many plants are shipped surreptitiously to buyers in deceptive packaging, but customs officials are rarely fooled, says Mr. Norman: "We just received some rare cacti, including a black-spined saguaro, in a package marked 'books.' Well, a box of cacti doesn't feel like a box of books. It makes suspicious scratchy noises."

Intercepted plants that survive the mails face further trauma at the hands of customs officials, who are required to dip the plants in fungicides and insecticides to remove all diseases and pests. Mr. Norman likens the process to a sheep dip.

"When customs gets done, the plant doesn't have a lot of living pathogens," he says. "A lot of the stuff we get are just stems. Some are dead."

Some are dead beyond recognition. You mourn the plants that succumb, says Mr. Norman, "because you don't know what you've lost."

Despite the odds, a large number of the rare plants do recover and eventually flourish in the greenhouse in Washington.

"Some of the plants we get are withered and dry and paper-thin," says Mr. Luby. "They come in feeling like tissue paper, without a drop of moisture in them. Yet they end up blooming.

"I've found that plants want to live and will do incredible things to survive. They do nothing for weeks, until suddenly you see a new root, and some new life. It makes you feel good," he adds. "We are the Red Cross for these plants."

Mr. Norman hopes that these plants may some day find thei original roots. "If the location is authentic, we can return them to their native habitats," he says. "But right now, when they arrive here, more or less, they're home."

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