Botanical Rescue Centers Take In Illegally Trafficked Plants

16:54 minutes

A man wearing a baseball cap points at pots of venus flytrap plants inside a greenhouse. Another man looks on, remarking on them. US Botanical Gardens
Zachary Leibovitch, an Advanced Gardener at the US Botanic Garden, shows Ira some Venus flytraps. Credit: U.S. Botanic Garden
Bright yellow flowers growing upside down.
An orchid, Stanhopea wardii, housed at the U.S. Botanic Garden. Credit: U.S. Botanic Garden

There’s a thriving black market to buy and sell endangered plants, and the Department of Agriculture and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitor endangered species that are brought into the United States illegally. When they are discovered, the plants’ home country has 30 days to accept them. If they aren’t claimed, they get rescued. Then where do they go? To one of 62 plant rescue centers across the country at botanic gardens, zoos, and arboretums, operating according to an agreement through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES).

Ira talks with Dr. Susan Pell, executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden, and Amy Highland, plant curator at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, DC, about the garden’s plant rescue program.

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Segment Guests

Susan Pell

Dr. Susan Pell is the Executive Director of the US Botanic Garden in Washington, DC.

Amy Highland

Amy Highland is Plant Curator at the US Botanic Garden in Washington, DC.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’ve talked before on this show about the vast array of endangered animals and plants in the world and people trying to bring them from one country into another illegally. The USDA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service monitor if endangered species are illegally being brought into this country. And when they are discovered, if their home country doesn’t accept them within 30 days, you know what happens to them? They get rescued.

And where do they go? Well, here to tell us about their program to rescue illegal trafficked plants are my guests Dr. Susan Pell, Executive Director of the US Botanic Garden in Washington DC, and Amy Highland, Plant Curator at the Botanic Garden. Welcome to Science Friday.

SUSAN PELL: Well, thanks so much for having us. We’re really excited to have this conversation with you today.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Tell us what happens when an endangered plant is confiscated. How does it end up at the US botanic garden?

AMY HIGHLAND: Well, we usually start off with a phone call. When these plants are brought into the country, usually through an airport or other port of entry, they are confiscated by the USDA. And someone will call us up, and say that they have these plants available, and would we be able to either host them while they are awaiting to be sent back to their home country or to keep them in perpetuity if they cannot be returned to their host country.

So oftentimes, we’ll receive some plant material, and we’ll spend a significant amount of time nursing it back to health and spending some time trying to give it a proper identification, making sure that it’s healthy enough to then be used in other ways at the Botanic Garden for education or for further conservation purposes.

IRA FLATOW: So you’ll keep them there virtually forever then if no one claims them.

AMY HIGHLAND: Yes. We will.


AMY HIGHLAND: They will live out their typical life cycle. We will often propagate them, make more copies of a plant when it’s possible. And those copies will either be shared, transferred to other rescue locations so that we have backups for our backups or, like I said, put on display so that we can share them with the public and help educate the public about these rare and often very beautiful plants.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of beautiful plants, tell me what the most common type of plants you rescue.

AMY HIGHLAND: We usually accept mostly orchids, and cactus, and succulents for these plants. We have houses under glass where we can grow these things year round. We have received some native orchid species in the past, though a vast majority of the things that we are receiving are orchids and cactus.

IRA FLATOW: And Dr. Pell, why are orchids, and succulents, and cacti so desirable to traffick? There are plenty of legal ways to grow them, right?

SUSAN PELL: There are absolutely legal ways to grow them, and it’s a good question. Why do people seek wild collected plants? I think part of it is the constant quest to increase diversity of people’s individual collections. I think the novelty of having something that’s different from what they can buy at their local grocery store or nursery is also compelling for people. And frankly, it’s a way for people to make money as well.

So pulling things from the wild is a free act. There’s a lot of risk to it, of course, especially if they’re doing so illegally. But it is a way for people to make money, and so there’s compelling reasons to do it on the front side. But of course, these activities are really detrimental to wild populations, driving many plants close to extinction and some to extinction just because people want to put them in their collections and grow them at home.

IRA FLATOW: How many plants has the botanic garden received through the rescue program?

AMY HIGHLAND: We’ve received hundreds over the years. We currently have 375 living in our collections. At least two dozen of them are on display for the public to see at this time.

IRA FLATOW: Is there a season to them, maybe around the holidays, people shipping plants? Or is there not a season?

SUSAN PELL: These plants really come to us year round because, primarily, we’re getting plants that are taken out of either tropical areas or desert areas. And the seasonality is whenever the people can get there to collect them. And that’s really year round.

So as they’re coming in to ports of entry, they might be coming into Mediterranean ports on the Western Coast of the United States or subtropical ports in Southern parts of the United States. Or they might be coming here in the mid-Atlantic. So they’re coming from all over the world from all different areas to all different ports here in the US.

And there are rescue centers, really, across the country. We’re one of many, many public gardens that serve as plant rescue centers. And typically, we’re going to be receiving materials that are brought into ports near us but not always. Sometimes we get things all the way from California.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So tell me what’s the wildest story, Dr. Pell, of a plant that the garden rescued.

SUSAN PELL: There are a lot of really good stories. I would say most of the stories that I’m familiar with really have to do with orchids. They come in often in large shipments. And so one orchid in particular, a lady slipper orchid, Paphiopedilum glaucophyllum, came to our collection in 1999. It was via US Fish and Wildlife. They confiscated at the border.

It was part of a large shipment of lady slipper orchids that were seized at LAX, the LA International Airport. And they were apparently wild collected in Indonesia. And they were shipped to California for the receipt of a nursery there. They were deliberately mislabeled as hybrids in an effort to evade detection. And they were known to not be those hybrids by the inspecting service and were seized.

It actually took us several years in our collection to get these plants to bloom. And eventually, after several years, when they did bloom, our botanist Kyle Wallach was able to identify them and definitively show proof that they were, in fact, this wild-collected lady slipper, that it was not the hybrid that they had been labeled at.

IRA FLATOW: So you had to wait until it bloomed to know what it was.

SUSAN PELL: We did, and that is often the case. So most of these plants are coming to us in very poor states. They’ve been shipped from around the world, and they’re coming to us needing water, needing nutrients, needing sunlight. And we really have to nurse them back to health.

And so even with our expert care and our wonderful facilities, we sometimes have to spend several years to get them back to a healthy state where they can bloom. And it’s often that bloom that’s required for us to be able to identify them definitively.

IRA FLATOW: And especially when you’re speaking about orchids, there are tens of thousands of species of orchids, more than any other plant.

SUSAN PELL: That’s right. That’s right. It’s one of the two most diverse families on Earth. And there’s about 30,000 species of orchids in the wild, and there are over 100,000 cultivars of orchids.

IRA FLATOW: So that’s why it’s so hard for you to figure out what you had in hand there.

SUSAN PELL: That’s exactly right. And I think orchids are just such a beloved plant. People just love them all around the world. And it’s that love that has really allowed people or encouraged people to create the over 100,000 cultivars from the original 30,000 wild species of orchids.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Amy, how do you decide where a plant goes once you get it in?

AMY HIGHLAND: Well, we’re looking at the growing conditions that these orchids require. Usually before they bloom, we can tell if it’s a tropical orchid or a hardy orchid, and we can decide which house it belongs in. We can also play with the watering regime and the nutrients to determine which is going to work best overall for that particular species.

Once it is brought back to health and once we know what it is, that’s when we’ll determine where and if we’re going to display it. Some things are too rare even to display.


AMY HIGHLAND: And they will stay at our production facility. There are just some things that are too tempting for folks. And so those, perhaps, will not go on display.

IRA FLATOW: Do you ever lend them out to orchid growers just as foster plants to take care of?

AMY HIGHLAND: No, we do not. So under our agreement with CITES, we hold them. We can transfer them to other CITES rescue areas, but we cannot give them to growers or breeders in this country. If we were to propagate any kind of CITES plant material, we would do it with the purpose of making it less tempting in the wild. And it certainly wouldn’t be clones to put back into the wild but just to make the need for them to be taken from the wild less necessary.

IRA FLATOW: Have you ever had someone try to take a rare orchid at the garden, either a clipping or just steal it because it was so rare?

SUSAN PELL: We actually occasionally have plant theft. And really, it’s interesting to look at the few times that it has happened over the last, say, 10 years. Sometimes you can tell that it’s somebody who really, really knows plants because they’ve selected something that’s either rare in the wild or maybe that’s just rare in cultivation. And sometimes it’s just somebody who thought it was pretty.

So there doesn’t seem to be a trend of people coming to the garden to find particular plants anything like that. But we have occasional theft as do many public gardens.

IRA FLATOW: And do you have an orchid show where people can come and look at them?

SUSAN PELL: We do have an orchid show. We actually have an orchid show every year. We host it in alternating years with Smithsonian Gardens, so that’s a collaboration that we have with Smithsonian Gardens. They are hosting it this year, and it’s actually up right now through the end of April.

IRA FLATOW: We’ve been talking a lot about plants that are coming from other countries. But this also happens a lot in the US, right, Amy? Give me an example of that.

AMY HIGHLAND: It does happen in the United States. We have some pretty rare flora here in the continental US as well. One of our most common examples of poaching from the wild would be our carnivorous plants. We have Venus flytraps in the southeastern United States, and those are a favorite target for people looking to take plants directly out of the wild.

We have a fairly good understanding now of every population of Venus flytrap in North America. And we’ve taken measures to reduce the amount of poaching that happens, trail cameras, genetically reviewing our plant materials so that we can tell where an individual plant came from if it is confiscated, things like that to try and reduce these poaching pressures on our wild populations of the plants that are rare and only found here in North America, like our Venus flytrap.

IRA FLATOW: That is a cool plant. And I can see why people would like to own one. But what about pitcher plants, another carnivorous eater, anything like that going on?

SUSAN PELL: Oh yeah, absolutely. All the carnivorous plants that are native to the US are under threat for poaching.

AMY HIGHLAND: Absolutely. People love carnivorous plants. They have such a unique story, and they are modified in a way that allows them to have these human-like characteristics, the eating of other organisms. And it just is so captivating for people anywhere that they find these in nature. So yes, they are a target for poachers.

IRA FLATOW: Mhmm. Now, if I go visit the US Botanic Garden, Dr. Pell or Amy, will I see a little note or a little mark on a plant that say, hey, this is a rescued plant?

SUSAN PELL: You will. So on our plant label that’s visible on all of our plants that are on display to the public, there will be a little note in the top corner that says CITES. And that’s an indication that that plant came to us through the plant rescue center program.

IRA FLATOW: I have a lot of orchids. I’ve been raising orchids for quite some time, and so they’re overrunning my house. And learning about all these trafficked orchids kind of makes me sad. So I’m wondering, how can I make sure I’m not actually or accidentally purchasing an illegal orchid, Dr. Pell?

SUSAN PELL: I think the best thing you can do is just make sure that you’re buying it from a reputable source. There are– there’s been an explosion since the pandemic of interest in houseplants, orchids included, succulent plants included, which is really one of the major threats to them in the wild. People really want to have these plants in their house.

And so what I’ve seen is a huge increase in people selling plants online, so individuals selling things from their collection or things maybe that they’ve collected in the wild online. And I would avoid those kind of sellers. So really make sure that you’re buying from a reputable source, an established nursery, that you know their practices and can and can trust that they are not illegally collecting plants and then selling them.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case you’re just joining us, I’m talking with Dr. Susan Pell and Amy Highland from the US Botanic Garden in Washington DC about the Garden’s program to rescue illegally traded endangered species. And so why is it– if there are so many of them, why is it so important to save these plants?

SUSAN PELL: Wow, it’s such a good question. I think ensuring the survival of the biodiversity of Earth is not only something that we should want to do but really something that I think we as people are really required to do in a lot of ways.

And that’s for selfish reasons in part. We love to look at beautiful things. We get a lot of our medicines– something like 70% of our medicine comes from plants and fungi. But also because the niche that that organism has in its native community is something that’s really valuable and can hold that community together. You never know when the removal of a single species from a habitat might have a cascading impact, cascading negative impact, on that habitat, not just on that individual and maybe the things that are dependent directly on it but also the organisms that are dependent on it.

And sometimes that can actually have an impact on the entire structure of the ecosystem as well. So you never know when that one species is going to be really a crucial species for the stability of that ecosystem, the survival of other organisms that are dependent on it, or when maybe that organism might have a direct benefit to people as well.

AMY HIGHLAND: It’s such a great point, Susan. And perhaps it goes without saying, but one of the things that we do not recommend is collecting any plants in the wild. We have seen a resurgence in interest in people helping with conservation activities, and we need these people to be engaged with us in the conservation of plant life.

But we always recommend that you do it with others. It’s never a solo mission. So join up. Join other conservation organizations if you’re looking for plants in the wild. Join other organizations if you’re planning on doing something as simple as removing invasives or things that are harmful to the environment.

IRA FLATOW: I know this is like asking if you have a favorite child, Amy. But do you have a favorite plant at the Garden? We won’t tell anybody.

AMY HIGHLAND: That is really hard. I have been really enjoying this spring. And our prunus have just come into full bloom here. And it has been a fabulous thing to watch.

Our magnolia displays around the city have started to pop. And that’s really captivated me at the moment as well. I’m also a trillium girl. A lot of my research is in trilliums, which are these lovely spring ephemerals, that are perhaps more common than orchids are. But you can see the decline in them whereas, a generation ago, botanists could walk and see fields of orchids.

You really can’t see that today. You can still see the fields of trillium. And I think that perhaps it will be the thing to captivate our next generation of botanists and plant explorers the way that the orchid once did in North America.

IRA FLATOW: Susan, do you have a favorite plant?

SUSAN PELL: Wow. That is always such a hard question for me. I would say that every day I have a different favorite plant. It just depends on what’s doing its thing today.

So today, right now, in the Garden Court, which is the first room that you come into in the conservatory, we have a lovely display of Amorphophallus konjac, which is a very stinky but much smaller cousin of the corpse flower. And that’s just a delight to be able to share just a little bit of our Amorphophallus collection with the public, especially when it’s in peak stinky bloom.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s great. The US Botanic Garden, one of my favorite places in DC, I want to thank both of you for taking time to be with us. Dr. Susan Pell, Executive Director of the US Botanic Garden in Washington, and Amy Highland, Plant Curator at the Garden. Thank you both for this great conversation.

AMY HIGHLAND: Thank you, Ira.

SUSAN PELL: Oh, thanks so much.

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