These California Succulents Are at the Center of a Massive Smuggling Ring

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Dudleya farinosa, cropped for tease only.
bluff lettuce plants
Dudleya farinosa may look like a common succulent you would see at a local nursery, but poached specimens with multiple rosettes like this are fetching $500-$700 in South Korea. Patrick Freeling

Just when you think you've heard it all, something comes along to top the you-won't-believe-this list. Here's the latest whopper: Plant smugglers from China and Korea are raping and pillaging fragile California coastal habitats, in some cases rappelling down ocean-facing cliffs to poach native succulents and ship them to Asia, particularly Korea, where housewives place them on windowsills as status symbols.

Arrests of poachers caught in the act have exposed an underworld of international plant smugglers at the center of a horticultural black market that makes the plant fanatics in "The Orchid Thief" who steal rare orchids in the Florida swamps look like amateur hijinks. The arrests and felony convictions in California have revealed that the unscrupulous Asian poachers are flying into San Francisco and working their way down the coast to Los Angeles, ripping out succulents in the genus Dudleya — mostly the species Dudleya farinosa — from state rights-of-way and natural habitats as they go.

And that's not all. Paperwork, including receipts found on the poachers, reveals an even darker side to the story. Based on the documents, there's a worldwide network of plant dealers, buyers and sellers who target not just succulents but also carnivorous and other plants in numerous countries. Until now, many have flown under the radar of U.S. Customs officers and regulatory agencies but they operate all over the globe — in Southeast Asia; the Philippines; Malaysia; Indonesia; Italy, Portugal and elsewhere in Europe; all over the United States; in Korea and China. And that's just what we know of.

In the succulent cases in California, authorities have discovered that as the smugglers work their way south, they have been stopping in local post offices along the way to ship as many as 60 boxes of Dudleyas at a time on a clandestine route that takes the plants to Hong Kong and Seoul. From there, the plants are sent to buyers in Korea, China and Japan before arriving at their final destination in homes and windowsills. No one knows for sure how many Dudleyas have been smuggled out of California, but losses are easily in the tens of thousands of plants. Especially desirable specimens of multiple growths, called rosettes, can fetch as much as $750-$1,000 each. Particularly rare or desirable specimens reportedly have sold for $5,000.

The rarest plants in this poaching saga have been stripped from Mexico's Cedros Island, a desert island about 60 miles off Mexico's west coast in the Mexican state of Baja California. Smugglers have reportedly used helicopters to reach the remote areas of the island to poach Dudleya pachyphytum, for which the only known location in the world is a small bio-reserve on the island's upper, foggy west-facing ridges. The area is so remote that there are no water trails in the plants' habitat, and a wrong step could send a smuggler plunging off a cliff and skewered by an agave or a cactus. There's even concern among some that the mafia or Mexican cartels might be involved in the thefts on Cedros.

Multiple arrests, some of which have led to felony convictions, and media reports have brought the poaching on Cedros and the U.S. West Coast into the public eye. Authorities, led by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, have also enlisted the help of the California Native Plant Society to look out for poachers and help replant seized Dudleyas and to re-establish plants poachers have damaged too severely to re-plant immediately. Still, the poaching continues.

Recent poaching is unprecedented

Stephen McCabe rock climbing
This photo of Stephen McCabe, taken more than 30 years ago while he was climbing a rock to inspect D. farinosa, shows what some smugglers will do to find these plants. Chris Bern

Stephen McCabe, a retired botanist, Dudleya expert and the emeritus director of research at the University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum, has known since the 1980s that Dudleyas have been disappearing from their habitats in the Santa Monica Mountains, other places on the West Coast and Cedros Island, though nothing like what has been happening recently. "The latest scale of Dudleya farinosa poaching is unprecedented, and it is very recent," McCabe said. He's working with Fish and Wildlife authorities to help identify the habitats from which seized plants were taken and to help authorities put plants back in the appropriate places.

He believes the first evidence of an increased desire for succulents in Korea began showing up about eight or nine years ago with legal sales of certain kinds of Echeverias, which are similar in appearance to Dudleyas. Initially, Koreans were particularly interested in plants that looked like Echeveria agavoides 'Ebony.' Several commercial growers in California told McCabe that Koreans would fly over and negotiate hard to buy as many Echeveria agavoides 'Ebony,' or similar succulents, as they could get.

"They said the plants were for Korean housewives who would put them on their window sills," said McCabe. "It was something about the symmetry of the Echeverias. They were guessing it might be because there is some similarity to the symmetry with lotus flowers that are so important in Asia." They got enough of those, and then moved on to the next fad plant, explained McCabe.

That fad was Dudleya pachyphytum, the rare species on Cedros Island. The plants grow in such a remote area that, as McCabe describes, "It's very difficult to get to the island and then it's a two-mile hike to get to the plants without any real trail, and you gain over 2,000 feet in elevation." He said he has heard of poachers using helicopters to land on a ridge in the desolate area where the plants grow, but doubts reports of poaches rappelling from helicopters to steal plants because he's not certain they could have obtained that skill level. He's also heard reports that local authorities have closed off access to the part of the island where Dudleya Pachyphytum grows.

With Cedros apparently off-limits to the black market, poaching has exploded on the U.S. West Coast in the last two years, said McCabe. Poachers are taking various Dudleya species, including Dudleya brittonii (giant chalk Dudleya) and Dudleya pulverulenta (chalk Dudleya), but the one they're taking in the greatest numbers is Dudleya farinosa. McCabe says poaching is occurring throughout Dudleya farinosa's range from Monterey, California, to southern Oregon. This Dudleya species appeals to the Korean market because it's what McCabe calls "a poor man's Dudleya pachyphytum. It's not quite as thick-leaved, but it has white leaves, it's easier to grow, it's far, far easier to poach. And there are tremendously more Dudleya farinosa than there are of the Dudleya pachphytum."

The big break

bluff lettuce
This is just one of the thousands of plants of D. farinosa seized from poachers in Point Arena, California, in spring 2018. Patrick Freeling

If all this is news to you, it was also news to California Fish and Wildlife game wardens when they got the first hint of what was going on. That came in a phone call from an irritated and concerned woman who became frustrated with a long wait at the Mendocino Post Office. This is a small post office, and an Asian man in front of her was taking all the clerk's time to ship 60 boxes out of the country.

The woman finally asked the man what was in the boxes. "Shhhhhh, something very valuable," he answered. She then asked him where he got something so valuable, and he pointed toward the coast. That prompted her to call the local Fish & Wildlife office, where she reached Warden Patrick Freeling, a 10-year veteran. Through a sense of duty and a spirit of persistence and curiosity, Freeling almost singlehandedly broke the international Dudleya smuggling operation wide open. That, though, would take some time.

Responsible for an area of the Mendocino coast and portions inland where he looks for environmental and wildlife crimes, Freeling at first suspected the call from Mendocino involved abalone, a highly desirable shellfish. Working with postal authorities, he discovered that instead of a mollusk the boxes contained plants, specifically the succulent Dudleya farinosa. Freeling had never heard of Dudleya farinosa, so he did a Google search. He discovered that the plant is a succulent that's fairly common along coastal areas of California and Oregon. As a cautionary step, he alerted other game wardens, but received no response.

replanting Dudleya farinosa on a cliff in Monterey County, California
Students from the University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum replant poached D. farinosa in Big Sur 2018. Stephen McCabe

The next month, Freeling received a call from another concerned citizen. This time the caller was in southern Mendocino in Point Arena who reported seeing an Asian man wearing a backpack rappel over the edge of a cliff. Freeling again suspected abalone poaching and responded to the area. He found the man and ascertained that instead of abalone his backpack was full of Dudleya farinosa. He bluffed him into confessing he was the same person who had shipped plants from the Mendocino Post Office. "How much are you getting for these plants?" Freeling asked. "About $20-$25 apiece," he responded. Freeling later learned the plants had a retail value on the black market averaging $70 apiece. It was Freeling's first contact with someone stealing succulents in the United States. It wouldn't be his last.

At this point, still not sure what he was dealing with but with his suspicions aroused that these were not isolated incidents, Freeling took his concerns to the district attorney's office. In the ensuing months, his suspicions were confirmed as postal investigations and arrests revealed a pattern of Dudleya poaching that led the district attorney's office to obtainfelony convictions for plant poaching. Convictions for abalone poaching are not uncommon, but a felony conviction for plant poaching was virtually unheard of. When Freeling found paper work and receipts from all over the world on people he arrested, he said it finally clicked with him that the Dudleya smuggling was just one part of a much more extensive global plant smuggling operation.

Tens of thousands of plants worth millions

Live-Forever plant
A plant of Dudleya pachyphytum with multiple rosettes photographed on Isla Cedros, Mexico. Cultivated plants often have a more uniform white waxy coating on the leaves. Stephen McCabe

No one knows for sure how many succulents have been poached on Cedros Island and along the U.S. West Coast through the years. Records of plants seized in California, however, make it clear the total is in the tens of thousands.

There's also no firm estimate of the retail value of black market plants, though one arrest in Humboldt County clearly shows the value easily runs into the millions of dollars. In that arrest, authorities seized 2,149 Dudleya species. Documents found during the arrest indicated the poachers took an estimated 27,403 plants in 2017 and 2018. Based on what Freeling says is a conservative estimate of $70 per single rosette plant, the retail value of the Dudleyas that just these poachers took in less than two years is $1.9 million.

"This was the first judgment we got on a big plant case," said Freeling. "It's setting a precedent for other courts that have never heard of Dudleya farinosa and never head of a plant poaching case, and they are going to look at the disposition in this case. I think that is the greatest deterrent we have to outstanding cases — that and we have an army of super-motivated volunteers who are they're out there and they are looking and watching and reporting." That army includes succulent hobby groups, botanists like McCabe and others who are imploring the public to only buy succulents from reputable dealers.

The last laugh

succulents in California
Dudleya pachyphytum only occurs on the windy, fog-shrouded upper ridges, facing westward on certain slopes and steep cliffs on the remote island. Stephen McCabe

Ironically, the last laugh may be on the Korean housewives buying Dudleya farinosa and other Dudleya species for status symbols. While the plants are extremely transportable because they can survive without water for quite a long time, McCabe believes the plants will face a tough time in Asia for several reasons.

One is that plants collected in the wild often have insect and other issues. Dudleya farinosa and other Dudleya species that have been ripped from coastal cliffs are no different. "Some of the plants I have inspected have caterpillars inside of them," said McCabe. "The caterpillar might keep on going around and around and eventually kill the plant."

Another is the climate in Asia, which is drastically different from the climate the plants experience in their native habitat. "A lot of these are going to an area that doesn't have a summer drought like California," said McCabe. "They are going to climates where they just won't do well because the summers there are warm and humid, and that is really tough on Dudleyas."

A third problem, and perhaps the most difficult to overcome, is that Dudleyas need more light than they will get in a lot of houses. They can survive in greenhouses in Asia because the commercial growers have a dehumidifier with fans going. In short, said McCabe, "Dudleya farinosa is not a good house plant. Without having a grow light and a fan, I think a large portion of the ones that are collected are just going to end up dying."