Secrets of the black market for green fingers
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:
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.”
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.”
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 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