Photo courtesy: Patrick Freeling

Succulent Wars

How California is fighting plant poaching and winning.

Plant Poaching in California

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The crimes started last December.

Lines at the post office are expectedly long during the holidays, but an anonymous postal patron in Mendocino, Calif., got suspicious when a man mailing several large packages caused a hold-up because they were dripping dirt.

Patrick Freeling, a game warden with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), said Mendocino County is used to witnessing fishy activity that points to the exploitation of its natural resources. The Northern Californian community has a history of dealing with abalone poachers. Some risk their lives scaling the side of cliffs in pursuit of the large sea snail desired for its colorful inner shell and expensive meat.

"From the tip that I received from the post office, I first thought that they were abalone," Freeling said of the packages' strange contents.

A Dudleya farinosa grows on a cliff in Point Arena, Calif. Photo courtesy: @b_t_anderson

His investigation led to the shocking and bizarre discovery that what the mailer in question had attempted to ship were hundreds of succulents, specifically, a species called Dudleya farinosa.

In January, Freeling got a second tip about an Asian adult male on the southern coast of Mendocino who was "carrying a large backpack and acting suspicious."

When confronted, the man said he was gathering succulents for his garden.

"I said, 'That's nonsense. I saw you on a tape at the Mendocino Post Office shipping them out," Freeling said, having no idea if the man really was connected to the incident.

To his surprise, Xiao Yang, 41, of Roseville, Calif., owned up to both crimes, receiving a $5,000 fine plus 240 hours of community service.

Stephen McCabe, the leading expert on Dudleya succulents, said some species are so small and so rare that an entire population can fit inside of a backpack.

"They could become extinct in a day," he said.

There are more than 65 species and subspecies of Dudleya that grow from Southern Oregon to the tip of Baja California, on the Channel Islands and Baja California Islands, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Santa Monica Mountains, and in some parts of Arizona and Utah.

Most grow in the form of multi-stemmed rosettes.

Dudleya farinosa, sometimes called "Bluff Lettuce," is native to California's central and northern coasts.

McCabe said because people around the world are finding Dudleyas more and more "charismatic," certain species like the farinosa have transformed from cute plant into cultural commodity.

Game warden Patrick Freeling busts a poaching operation in Mendocino, Calif. Photo courtesy: Patrick Freeling

In March, Freeling busted two more poachers in Mendocino County who were collecting succulents by the thousand in a rented van that they intended to return in Southern California.

"The thought is that they were going to work their way down the coast, shipping these plants as they went," Freeling said.

The two men, Hyeongjae Kim and Minguk Cho of Korea, both plead guilty to felony grand theft, paid $10,000 in fines, $330 in court assessments and received 2-year prison sentences that were deferred.

A few weeks later, three more people were arrested further north in Humboldt County, accused of mailing more than 1,000 packages of Dudleyas to Korea and China over the course of a year.

"We're setting the precedent that if you get caught with a lot of plants, you're going to pay the price, so to speak," Freeling said. "That's huge for us."

The CDFW continues to investigate ongoing incidents of Dudleya poaching, which Freeling said have all been executed by people of Asian descent.

Photo courtesy: Patrick Freeling
"It's like having a Fendi bag on Rodeo Drive." - Patrick Freeling

In Asia, most succulents are priced between $40 and $50, but some can sell for hundreds a pop. That's because they're regarded as more than just decorative houseplants; they're a symbol of upper-class status.

Korean housewives, in particular, are among the black market's biggest buyers.

"It's like having a Fendi bag on Rodeo Drive," Freeling said. "A Dudleya farinosa from the wild bluffs of Mendocino, Calif., especially a five-headed one, is apparently a super cool thing to have."

In the U.S., where the average succulent sells for less than half the price in Asia, they've become a trending icon for an entirely different reason. Millennials, many of whom belong to the working class and can't afford homes, are "greenifying" their rented spaces with low-maintenance succulents in place of backyards.

McCabe weighs in on recent Dudleya heists. Photo courtesy: Steve McCabe

Freeling said even locals have been caught from time to time taking plants out of the wild for their personal collections.

They're typically given warnings.

"It's nothing new," said Brett Hall, the program director for the Arboretum and Botanical Garden at UC Santa Cruz.

He's observed the thinning of Dudleya populations in the state's northern and central coastal landscapes for the last 20 years.

McCabe, who's been studying Dudleyas since 1983, said plant poaching in California dates back to the 1970s.

However, what is new is that massive smuggling operations have "skyrocketed in the last few years," according to McCabe.

"This is really big time," Hall said of California's recent "Dudleya heists."

McCabe replants a confiscated Dudleya in Big Sur, Calif. Video courtesy: Brett Hall

"Having long been associated with Dudleya, I do take it personally," McCabe added. "I have a nine-month old granddaughter. I'd love for see the Dudleya when she grows up."

Sean Lahmeyer, the Huntington Library's Plant Conservation Specialist, said he couldn't offer an explanation for what's driving the phenomenon, but believes it could have something to do with the Dudleya's lack of protection under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The treaty ensures that international trade poses no threat to the survival of plants and animals in the wild.

"I think that's why people have seen it as an opportunity to go take them," Lahmeyer said. "Because if you do get caught poaching these, the consequences are not as severe."

The impact plant poaching has on the environment; however, is severe. Taking them out of the wild means disrupting an entire ecosystem.

"There are things that eat Dudleyas - mice, rabbits, deer," McCabe said. "There are pollinators including bees and hummingbirds, and then there are things that eat the rabbits, mice, pollinators and other insects."

Photo courtesy: Brett Hall
"If we were to replant Dudleyas from Mendocino along the Big Sur Coast, we would be introducing a genetic component that wasn't there before." - Brett Hall

In June, McCabe and Hall led a replanting effort with students of UC Santa Cruz and State Park employees and successfully returned hundreds of confiscated Dudleyas to the coast of Big Sur, Calif.

The succulent is known as the "live forever" because it has unique survival capabilities and can be repatriated to the wild in most cases. However, it's crucial to know exactly where a succulent came from in order to give it the best chance of living up to its nickname.

"If we were to replant Dudleyas from Mendocino along the Big Sur Coast, we would be introducing a genetic component that wasn't there before," Hall said.

It takes experts like McCabe to identify those points of origin before it's too late.

Freeling shares what he loves about his job. Photo courtesy: Patrick Freeling

When a mixed bag of Dudleyas is confiscated, they are often given second homes at the Huntington Library's Desert Garden conservatory and UC Santa Cruz's Arboretum. Both institutions have inherited hundreds of seized plants.

"It's the first time I've seen biologists, law enforcement, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and other agencies all working together for a common goal," Freeling said.

He estimates his busts alone weigh in at close to 5,000 pounds of succulents, and attributes his success to help from the local community.

"These incidents have just stoked the fire on the state's deeply-involved plant enthusiasts," he said, which California's Native Plant Society estimtes to be around 35 million people.

His fire is stoked, too.

"It pisses me off when people come to our house - meaning the state of California's house - and exploit our resources," Freeling said, adding that the department's 350 game wardens can only patrol so much coastline in a given day.

"But when you have people keeping an eye out for anything's allowed us to take down these smuggling operations, which in my eyes, is beautiful."

Photo courtesy: Patrick Freeling
"It pisses me off when people come to our house...and exploit our resources." - Patrick Freeling