Succulent Smuggling Ring Busted in Northern California

Native to the coasts of northern California and Oregon, Dudleya farinosa is being targeted by plant-snatching crooks who supply Asia's botanical black market. (Photo: Mike Baird/flickr)

Guns. Drugs. Exotic animals. Human body parts.

Of all the things that you’d think would have a thriving black market, dainty, drought-resistant plants that look adorable when placed in vintage teacups usually don’t top the list. But, alas, these are strange times and succulents — yes, innocuous and ultra-trendy succulents — are making headlines for being at the center of a highly organized international plant smuggling ring uncovered in northern California.

In recent months, three separate busts have been carried out by state wildlife officials in Mendocino and Humboldt counties as part of a larger crackdown on the illegal poaching of Dudleya farinosa, a type of succulent commonly known as bluff lettuce. Native to the rugged coastlines of Oregon and northern California, Dudleya farinosa is a sought-after specimen on the horticultural black markets of China and South Korea where they sell for as much as $40 to $50 apiece.

Thousands of plants have been swiped by skilled plant poachers from precarious bluffs high above the Pacific Ocean and stuffed into boxes for overseas shipment.

"Pretty unusual case for us," Patrick Foy, a captain with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), tells Bay Area CBS affiliate KPIX of the ongoing investigation. "Like nothing we’ve seen before in terms of the scale and the type of poaching involved."

Botanist Stephen McCabe, a Dudleya expert who serves as emeritus director of research at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, explains to KPIX that the plants are particularly prized in Asia due to their unique color characteristics and resemblance to the lotus flower. Per the San Jose Mercury News, the emerging Chinese middle class, which previously could not afford such luxuries as decorative plants, is fueling much of the demand.

Many of the plants have since been recovered and replanted by CDFW officers. It’s unclear, however, how many plants had already been bootlegged out of California.

"It’s really dreadful that people are stealing these succulents in the wild, just stripping whole cliffs," laments McCabe.

It all started with a long line at a small post office

Post office in Mendocino, California
The CDFW's ongoing investigation into succulent smuggling was jump started by an anonymous tip placed at the Mendocino post office. (Photo: Alec Perkins/flickr)

California wildlife officials first became aware of the succulent smuggling operation thanks to an anonymous tip made last December by a most atypical hero: a nosey and impatient post office customer.

The tipster, agitated by a long line at the local post office in the quaint coastal village of Mendocino, began casually grilling the source of the holdup, the man in front of her, after noticing the unusually large number of parcels he was attempting to send. (As one does in a small town, I suppose.) Sensing something was amiss, she alerted Patrick Freeling, a game warden with the CDFW.

Writes the Mercury News:

A man in line ahead of her was shipping 60 packages to China. 'What are you shipping?' she asked, as the line grew, snaking out the door. 'The man put his finger up to his lip and said, 'Shhhh, something very valuable,' said Freeling. 'Where did you get them?' she asked. The man pointed toward the ocean.

After receiving the tip, Freeling contacted U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The packages were then X-rayed, revealing their contents: a whole mess of illegally procured Dudleya.

Dudleya Farinosa
Named after a California botanist and noted for its variable, often spectacular appearance, Dudleya farinosa is also known as bluff lettuce and powdery liveforever. (Photo: John Rusk/flickr)

(Worth noting: Touristy Mendocino, a photogenic logging town-turned-artist colony, is best known as the real-life setting of "Murder, She Wrote." It’s safe to assume that the locals all have a bit of Jessica Fletcher, the TV show's sleuthing protagonist, instilled in them.)

With an official investigation underway, other tips began to quickly roll-in including sightings of a man — the very same man captured by surveillance video holding up the line at the Mendocino post office — shoving plants into a backpack as he scaled the cliffs outside of town. Another call alerted Freeling to the presence of a suspicious minivan parked alongside scenic Highway 1. Arriving on the scene, Freeling found the minivan packed with dozens of succulent-stuffed boxes — 850 Dudleya plants in total along with 1,450 smaller "rosette" succulents.

The two men who had rented the van were in possession of Korean passports and reportedly en route to Los Angeles.

"It is my belief that they were picking plants, filling boxes, filling the van and shipping them as they moved south down the coast," Freeling tells the Mercury News of the suspects, who were later placed under arrest. "They had numerous contacts for succulent dealers in California and abroad."

Nabbed green-handed

Cliffs in Mendocino County, California
Plant poachers' paradise: The swiped succulents have been illicitly harvested from rugged seaside cliffs in Mendocino and Humboldt counties. (Photo: Sharon Mollerus/flickr)

A more recent development in the CDFW's investigation occurred in early April in Humboldt County, directly north of Mendocino.

Here, the U.S. Postal Service and U.S. Customs alerted wildlife officials to an uptick in mysterious, dirt-leaking boxes being sent to Asia. Surveillance commenced, which lead to the arrest of three plant-snatching bandits, all Chinese nationals, who were nabbed in a rented van filled with more than 1,300 plants. Officials then obtained a search warrant and raided a remote cabin in the redwoods rented by the suspects. The cabin — surprise, surprise — was filled with another 1,000 Dudleya plants.

As Foy explains to the Mercury News, the investigation will remain open so long as tips keep coming in. "Once it hit our radar screen, and we looked more for it, we discovered that it’s bigger than we thought."

Meanwhile, McCabe is concerned about the detrimental impact that the wholesale pillage of native succulents will have on vulnerable coastal habitats. He also points out that in most cases, the harvested plants, so hardy and resilient when left alone, won’t even survive the drawn-out journey to the Asian black market.

"They are tough as nails in exactly the right spot," McCabe explains. "But many times the collected plants just die."