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Been There Done That

Cacti catastrophe

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Succulents and cacti have taken the world by storm in the past several years. Even prior to the pandemic, an explosion of interest in these small aesthetically pleasing plants, has steadily risen. Aided by Instagram and a desire to be more in harmony with nature, windowsills across the globe were quietly being taken over by little pots containing these unique plants. Looking back at history, plant obsessions are a frequent occurrence. Think of Tulip Mania in the Netherlands during the 1600s or Fern-Fever in the UK during the 1800s. In more modern times, air plants, orchids, and the Venus flytrap have been the victims of flora fads.

On the surface, such trends might seem positive because they make consumers more conscious of the natural world. To a certain extent, this is correct. However, while most succulents and cacti are raised domestically, the sharp rise in demand for these little bits of verdant vegetation has created a serious black market and poaching problem. 

For many cacti and succulents, this has become a serious threat. While many biological aspects of the drought-resistant plants make them wonderful house plants, their growth and reproduction are very slow. With ever-increasing demand and stagnant supply, prices for these kinds of plants have risen rapidly. Many of the most sought-after species of succulents and cacti are indigenous to the Americas, with areas like Arizona and New Mexico being especially prolific. As the sticker prices on desert plants rose sharply, poachers began to harvest them from the wild and smuggle them around the world. Of the nearly 1,500 cacti species in the world, 30% are critically endangered and the extra pressure from poachers is exacerbating the problem.

A recent raid of illegal cactus traffickers in Italy uncovered over 1,000 rare specimens worth in excess of $1,200,000 on the black market. In airports all across the globe, seizures of illegal plants are on the rise. In February of this year, a New Zealand woman was caught trying to smuggle 947 samples of cacti and succulents strapped to herself. Eight of the samples were critically endangered and on their own worth over $7,000. In the U.S. alone, the sale of cacti and succulents rose 60% from 2012 to 2017. While accurate figures for the whole world are difficult to obtain, global demand is clearly following a similar trajectory. 

Take the unfortunate case of Ariocarpus fissuratus, commonly called the living rock cactus. To the average person, this little wrinkly plant looks unremarkable, like a dark green sponge. But in the autumn, if conditions are just right, the cactus blooms with stunning bright magenta flowers. A recent surge in demand for this specific species of cacti has resulted in a rash of poachings. Non-profit nurseries in the southwest have taken in waves of seized and confiscated cacti in an effort to rehabilitate them and reintroduce them back into the wild. Nonetheless, the already limited population has been decimated in the last few years. Nurseries have begun to produce some of these rare plants from seeds for domestic owners but, a living rock cactus requires roughly 15 years to bloom under ideal conditions. Widespread availability will require years of cultivation in nurseries.

I am pleased that more people are promoting indoor gardening. Increased environmental conscientiousness is beneficial for mental and physical health. The question is: How to enjoy this hobby without contributing to the demise of endangered species? Choose to only buy from reputable greenhouses and nurseries, not online. Also, ask about the origin of the plants you are seeking to purchase when shopping at a nursery. Sellers should be happy to give you a clear answer of where the plants came from. When shopping for a new addition to your collection, do a quick google search to make sure you are getting a non-endangered species. Though the vast majority of succulents and cacti sold are common species that are cultivated legally, buyers should be wary of less than savory specimens. With a bit of due diligence, you can safely enjoy your favorite house plants without endangering natural ecology.

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