The houseplant industry’s threat to biodiversity

From the onset of the COVID pandemic, houseplant sales have skyrocketed. Nurseries and greenhouses across the country have struggled to keep up with the demand for succulents, spider plants, and bonsai, plus rising demands for rare, one-of-a-kind houseplants. 

In California, a prized succulent known as a liveforever grows naturally on the coastal cliffs. Unique species of these succulents, such as the Dudleya farinosa, fetch exorbitant prices, incentivizing poachers to dig them up for sale. As journalist Lois Beckett detailed in The Guardian, one of the most infamous succulent poachers, Byungsu Kim, illegally harvested over 3,700 dudleyas from California’s state parks during one excursion. The estimated value of the stolen succulents tallied up to $600,000, but the biodiversity loss caused by removing these plants extends at least 4 million years into the future, according to the educational U.K.-based YouTube channel Nature Bites. 

“A hillside denuded of dudleya [can easily slough] off into the ocean,” Nick Jensen, conservation project manager at California Native Plant Society, told The Guardian. These collapsing cliffs put “lives, homes, and vital infrastructure at stake,” according to reporting in The Atlantic.

Poaching in the houseplant industry affects more than just California. In the American and Mexican Chihuahuan Desert—one of the most biologically diverse deserts in the world—landscapers and cacti collectors fuel the cacti smuggling business. In Mexico, the removal of wild cacti is often legal, but transportation across borders often is not, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Famous saguaro cacti, with their charismatic arms, have been dug up and sold, “leading to depletion of some cactus species in the Chihuahuan Desert,” botanist Christopher Robbins told WWF. Desert life like tortoises, deer, lizards, snakes, and coyotes depend on the cacti for water, shelter, and food.


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