Se­crets of the black mar­ket for green fin­gers

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - Front Page -

The theft last week of the world’s small­est wa­ter lily, Nym­phaea ther­marum, from Kew Gar­dens served as a re­minder of the hid­den world of plant hunt­ing. There is a thriv­ing in­ter­na­tional trade in stolen plants. Ex­act fig­ures are hard to ob­tain, but with the le­gal plant trade val­ued at £9bn an­nu­ally, the il­le­gal trade is thought to be in the hun­dreds of mil­lions.

“There are 30,000 plants on the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species list (the body that po­lices flora and fauna lev­els) list of en­dan­gered species, com­pared with just 5,000 an­i­mals,” says Dr Richard Thomas from Traf­fic, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that mon­i­tors il­le­gal wildlife trade. “One is­sue is that when a species goes on the list – par­tic­u­larly or­chids – there is likely to be a run on it. There are a num­ber of species, such as Paphio­pe­dilum viet­na­mense, that no longer ex­ist in the wild be­cause they have been so col­lected.”

Un­der the Wildlife and Coun­try­side Act 1981, it is an of­fence to pick rare plants, or to take plants from the owner’s land with­out per­mis­sion.

Here are some of the most de­sir­able plants world­wide:

Lady’s-slip­per orchid

Once com­mon across Bri­tain, the orchid slowly died out as a re­sult of clear­ances and graz­ing. Our na­tive species, Cypri­pedium cal­ceo­lus, was thought to be ex­tinct in 1917, be­fore it was found grow­ing on a golf course in the north of Eng­land. Af­ter thefts, it was given CCTV pro­tec­tion and fre­quent po­lice pa­trols, and its lo­ca­tion is a closely guarded se­cret. The plants have since been cul­ti­vated more suc­cess­fully, but wild cut­tings can fetch up to £5,000.

“Or­chids are the most soughtafter species,” says Thomas. “There is an ad­di­tional ku­dos to own­ing th­ese things if they’ve been in the wild. No­body knows how many fa­nat­i­cal col­lec­tors there are, but there are cer­tainly a num­ber that will pay a high price. I ex­pect that’s what has hap­pened with the lily from Kew – it has been stolen to or­der.”

Den­dro­bium no­bile

Another orchid, the noble den­dro­bium is not par­tic­u­larly rare, and is found through­out Asia. How­ever, it is highly prized for use in tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine, where it has been val­ued as a tonic and strength­en­ing sup­ple­ment for more than 1,000 years. More re­cently, it has also gained pop­u­lar­ity as a body­build­ing sup­ple­ment. A ship­ment of four tons was in­ter­cepted by plant po­lice to­wards the end of last year. been high-pro­file cy­cad thefts in Florida and South Africa.

“South Africa has a real prob­lem with reg­u­lat­ing the cy­cad trade,” says Thomas. “They are quite easy to take, and it can be hard to de­ter­mine where they have been sourced from.”

Saguaro cac­tus

The quin­tes­sen­tial cac­tus, the saguaro is prized as an im­age of the Amer­i­can West, but it can take the plants 75 years to ac­quire their dis­tinc­tive “arms”. It has long been a tar­get for poach­ers, who drive out into the desert, dig up the ma­ture plants then sell them back to nurs­eries and col­lec­tors. In Ari­zona, where most of the cacti are found, harm­ing the plants is a se­ri­ous crime, pun­ish­able by up to four years in prison. At the Saguaro Na­tional Park, near Tuc­son, some of the best spec­i­mens have been tagged with mi­crochips to make it easy to iden­tify them if ever they go miss­ing.


Galan­thus are the tulips of our day – in 2012, a sin­gle bulb sold on eBay for £725. Col­lect­ing from the wild is il­le­gal in most coun­tries, but in Bri­tain there is a thriv­ing trade in gar­den theft. At An­gle­sey Abbey, Cam­bridgeshire, which holds one of the Na­tional Trust’s most prized col­lec­tions, thou­sands of the bulbs have been se­cu­rity tagged to de­ter rob­bers. A de­tailed map of the dif­fer­ent species has also been drawn up so that the gar­den­ers know which ar­eas to watch out for.


It might sound sur­pris­ing, given how com­mon grass is, but new­ly­laid turf can be at­trac­tive to thieves. It is easy to spot, and be­fore its roots have es­tab­lished it can be rolled up for re­sale. Sports pitches and golf cour­ses, where the grass is par­tic­u­larly well main­tained and can be worth thou­sands of pounds, are par­tic­u­larly at risk, and there have also been re­ports of AstroTurf theft.

Sphag­num moss

Sphag­num moss can hold up to eight times its weight in wa­ter, and so is an im­por­tant com­po­nent of many hang­ing bas­kets and wreaths. Most com­mer­cial florists buy it from ded­i­cated farms, but it is also found in the up­per lay­ers of peat bogs, where gangs of thieves dig it out to sell to less scrupu­lous buy­ers. In Scot­land in 2003 there were sev­eral re­ported cases of theft, with one in­ci­dent caus­ing an es­ti­mated £34,000 of dam­age.


Grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity in the west, gin­seng root has long been highly prized in the Far East for its medic­i­nal prop­er­ties. It is said to help cure sex­ual dys­func­tion and work as an aphro­disiac. Clin­i­cal tri­als have sug­gested that it may have an­tivi­ral prop­er­ties, too. There are rou­tinely large seizures of the plant across Asia. Al­though it is widely cul­ti­vated for use in nat­u­ral medicine, there is still an ex­tra ca­chet for wild gin­seng.


In May 2009, thieves went to Withdean Park, Brighton, and de­stroyed the Na­tional Col­lec­tion of li­lac ( Syringa vul­garis), which had been es­tab­lished there since the Six­ties. The at­tack came when the plants were in full bloom, just days be­fore the gar­den’s an­nual li­lac party. The thieves left cuts of rib­bon scat­tered on the ground, sug­gest­ing that the li­lac stems had been tied into bunches for re­sale.

We all do it… don’t we?

Is it ever OK to take cut­tings? Af­ter all, shar­ing seeds, plants and cut­tings is one of the most en­joy­able parts of gar­den­ing.

“I don’t mind when peo­ple ask if they can take a cut­ting or have a few seeds, as long as they don’t tram­ple any­thing on the way,” says Cory Fur­ness, head gar­dener at Pen­shurst Place, in Sus­sex.

“It’s dif­fer­ent if peo­ple are tak­ing plants or pro­duce. With the pro­duce, we try to use ev­ery­thing in the house. We get the odd windfall, and it’s fine to take those, but I’ve caught peo­ple try­ing to leave with bags full of ap­ples that they ob­vi­ously picked.

“Oc­ca­sion­ally, if we left plants out when we were plant­ing bor­ders, they would go miss­ing. There would be seven aga­pan­thus when I left, and three when I got back. We don’t leave them out any more. Thieves know ex­actly what they’re do­ing – they see some­thing un­guarded, know that we sell plants in the shop, and want some­thing for free.”

Ob­jects of de­sire: clock­wise from above, the saguaro cac­tus; cy­cad; Kew Gar­dens’ Nym­phaea ther­marum; lady’s-slip­per orchid

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