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The Case of the Stolen Succulents

Native hipster plants are at center of California poaching crisis

By Erin McCormick

In China, they are prized for their chubby limbs and cute shapes. In Korea, they are a treasured hobby for housewives. But on the coastal cliffs of California, the dudleya succulent plants are vanishing, snatched up by international smugglers and shipped to an Asian middle-class market hungry for California native flora.

photo of succulentsPhoto by Stan ShebsDemand for succulents like Dudleya farinosa in Asia is fueling destructive poaching of native plants along the California coast.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife wardens have made five busts this year, involving more than 3,500 stolen plants, evidence that the succulent, a symbol of American hipster style, has gone global to grievous effect.

“Right now these plants are a boom in Korea, China, and Japan. It’s huge among domestic housewives. It’s a status thing,” said the department warden Pat Freeling, who spearheaded the investigation. “It’s become an exotic lotus flower succulent. Someone likened it to the next Pokémon.”

The succulents, dubbed “Live Forevers” by early California explorers for their ability to survive long ocean crossings, require little care and are often mistakenly thought to be ideal for apartment living. Each five-inch plant, with waxy, white-green leaves that grow in bud-like circles, is said to fetch $40 to $50 on the Asian market. While they are not rare in California and can be grown in nurseries, the process takes years. And nursery owners said they were not available in the huge quantities that Asian shippers seem to want.

Freeling began investigating the thefts after getting a tip in January from an anonymous woman, who got stuck in a line at a post office in Mendocino County, 150 miles north of San Francisco, behind a man who was mailing dozens of boxes to Asia.

Freeling said the man was holding up the whole line and and the boxes were dripping dirt. When the women asked him what he was shipping, the man said: “Shhhhh, something very valuable.” When she asked where he got it from, he pointed to the ocean.

Thinking he had been tipped off to an abalone poaching ring, Freeling got customs officials to X-ray the 60 boxes. He was puzzled when what they found inside was not rare sea life but hundreds of plants of the species Dudleya farinosa being mailed to Korea and China.

So began the search for dudleya smugglers. Soon Freeling found a man pulling the plants off a cliffside and shoving them into a big backpack.

When Freeling asked him what he planned to do with the 50 plants, the man said: “They are for my garden.” But when Freeling confronted him about the thousands of plants being shipped through the post office, the man admitted he was shipping them for profit. The man, Xiao Yang, 41, of Elk Grove, California, pleaded guilty to unlawfully taking plant material and ended up with a $5,000 fine, 240 hours of community service and three years probation.

In March, Freeling caught two men loading boxes and boxes of dudleya — about 850 large plants — into a van they had rented from the San Francisco airport. The men had both recently arrived from Korea on one- to three-month visas. On April 4, three more men were arrested while denuding hillsides of dudleya — and over 2,000 more plants were found. Last weekend, an individual and a couple were caught taking small numbers of dudleya from the coast. And a bag of the plants was found abandoned in the parking lot of a Mendocino shopping center.

“I have dedicated my career to catching poachers,” said the fish and wildlife department captain Patrick Foy. “But that has always been animal and fish poachers. Now we have this new kind of poaching: plant poachers.”

While adored for their sculptural looks, succulents often make for finicky house plants because of their high light requirements and intolerance of overwatering. In the US, images of succulents are now almost cliche in trendy merchandise, with plastic replicas available in chain stores and succulents adorning T-shirts and even wedding cake decorations.

They have become so popular in Korea and China that they are sold in huge emporiums, some the size of several basketball fields. In Korea, raising succulents is considered an “addiction” popular among housewives, students, and others with small living spaces. Korean articles refer to the trend as “succulent fever” and quote wives telling husbands who complain about oversized collections not to worry because “I will take all of my succulent plants with me when I leave you.”

In China, succulents are known as “fat plants.” China’s new class of consumers loves anything that is trendy in Korea, according to Alison Hulme, a lecturer at the University of Northampton and editor of the book The Changing Landscape of China’s Consumerism.

Hulme said collecting dudleyas and other succulents may fulfill the quest for “suzhi,” or “quality of personhood,” sought by many in China’s burgeoning middle class ranks, because the plants require care and knowledge and show good taste.

“I think things like this can quickly become a symbol of the middle class,” she said. “For the generation 30 and under, it’s important for them to show that they are the generation that got the privilege of buying things.”

California native plant lovers came out in droves last week to help replant thousands of confiscated dudleyas into northern California cliffs.

Kathy Crane, owner of Yerba Buena Nursery, one of the oldest growers of California native plants in the state, said her company had received numerous emails, Facebook messages, and texts from Asian plant collectors looking for dudleyas.

“We grow and sell this rare dudleya at our nursery,” advertised an Instagram post from the company. “Much less expensive than a court case and jail time.”

The Guardian
The Guardian UK, one of Britain's top daily newspapers, provides coverage of international environmental issues. Earth Island Journal is a member of the Guardian's Environment News Network.

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