As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap


Is there a statute of limitations for poaching?

You see, one of my interests is carnivorous plants, and I’m particularly fond of pitcher plants in the genus Sarracenia. (Proof: I own!) These plants are easy to grow, and there’s a large horticultural community that loves them. They’re great plants — dramatic, showy, and just plain cool.

Unfortunately, some species are crushingly rare in the wild. The Nature Conservancy, other conservation organizations, and state agencies have preserves where these rare plants are protected.

While you might think that the community of pitcher plant growers would be tightly allied with the conservation workers, it just ain’t so. Why? Because a small fraction of growers poach plants from the wild, earning the ire and mutual distrust by everyone to everyone.

This is where it gets really interesting, at least from an ethical point of view. One of the really rare species, Sarracenia jonesii, has a mutant form that does not have red pitchers like all the others do — instead, its pitchers are bright lime green.

Horticulturists wet themselves at the sight. Poachers have been so busy stealing this mutant from the wild that they have poached it out of existence. Now, it can only be found in plant collections.

Like all other pitcher plants, Sarracenia jonesii is fairly easy for the specialist to grow and propagate. I frequently see it for sale by private horticulturists, nurseries and even in gift shops at botanical conservatories. Setting aside for the moment the issue of permits (it is illegal to sell S. jonesii across state lines without Fish & Wildlife permits), I ask you…do the descendants of plants poached from the wild ever lose the taint of their unethical ancestry?

I help manage a university collection of carnivorous plants, and a visitor recently offered to give our collection a specimen of the mutant Sarracenia jonesii. The plant was a division from a seedling the grower had created by self-pollinating his own plant, which in turn he had originally bought from the gift shop at a botanical garden in Georgia. He had records documenting all this.

The plant is beautiful. But I know — I know in my heart — that this plant is the descendent of a plant that came to cultivation by the actions of some jerk who jumped a fence and dug a plant from the wild.

So my question du jour is: Do these plants ever become “clean”? Or should they forever be considered ethically unacceptable?

I will decline stating whether I accepted the plant for the university.

(Image: Sarracenia pupurea subsp. purpurea in Canada. Credit: Barry Rice.)

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  1. Hi Barry,

    Even though these plants will never be ‘clean,’ and they come from questionable origins, I firmly believe that every part of nature is beautiful and should never be considered ‘unacceptable’.

    Even mutants and poached species have their place in this world and should be displayed for their uniqueness.



    1. Hey Gina,

      Oh, I’m not denying the plants are beautiful–I’ve risked my neck to see them! But I still wonder about the ethical issues. Would keeping the plants tacitly imply you approve of their poached origins?

      Viewed differently, suppose someone cut a tree down from your back yard without permission while you were away. And suppose that later you saw, in a craft shop, a lamp that you somehow knew was made from the tree. I don’t know about you, but that would make me mad…

  2. Almost every domesticated plant (neglecting those that were created/hybridized by man) was ripped from the wild at one point or other.

    While recognizing that there was an original sin committed in order to bring it back to “civilization”, I don’t see the harm in distributing their descendants if it meant leaving wild populations alone.

    The catch, of course, is that nobody leaves them alone.

    1. Hey Keith,
      I don’t completely oppose field collection–I think it is ok in many cases. But what of cases involving trespassing and removal against the wishes of conservation authorities stewarding the plants? I have heard poachers justify their actions, by saying they’ll distribute illegally collected plants to other horticulturists. I’m concerned that whitewashing plants after a generation of propagation eases the poachers’ consciences?

  3. It is not right for a plant, any plant, poached into extinction. Especially with the amount of methods we have today to breed them. All nursery plants need to originate from the wild, but you can breed plants without removing them from their native habitat.

    The plants themselves are innocent of their origins, it is the people that sell the poached plants on without checking their origins that should be ashamed, as well as the people who took them in the first place!

    I believe that the decedents of these poached plants should be put back into the wild, in the most secret location possible, so they exist freely once more.

  4. What about cross-breeding the unethical mutant pitcher plant with an ethical partner that originated from the wild. The resulting descendants would be less unethical than their parents. Do that a few times, and surely, at some stage, it will become ok again to keep them. Not sure though how long it takes to dilute unclean origins to the point that the tainted past can be forgiven? I guess no one feels guilty about keeping dogs or cats whose ancestors were once forcefully taken into human society, so a few thousand years should surely do the trick.

  5. I understand that the problem with tainted carnivorous plants is there ‘taint enough of them. ;o)

    Your question follows problems with ancient artifacts and the seafood trade and it always boils down to What (was collected)? How (it was obtained)? and Where (it was obtained)? and how the anonymity protects Who obtained it from being labeled either a research manager or a poacher–with a huge fuzzy intersection between the two often only separated by a piece of paper called a license that is weakly enforced.

    Collecting plants from the wild and distributing the cultivars is similar to laundering money and diluting your culpability by nobly spreading the marked bills widely to cover your tracks, the difference being that S. jonesii is the currency.

    I agree with Cassie above that the plants are “innocent” of a crime just as someone who is kidnapped is.

    I think if you collect it illegally then cultivate and distribute, you should be charged with the theft of the plant and equally again for every offspring as if it were poached too, so that the negative consequences multiply rather than dilute. Any plants confiscated as evidence should of course be returned to a managed wild state as best as possible or serve as functioning promoters of the reduction of demand by over-cultivating for sale when returning them to the wild is not possible (e.g. it conflicts with gene flow management of a wild species)

    While you will never elude the determined unethical collector, educating folks to your conservation goal is the most effective way to correct the problem by having people actually think about it and be ethically aware by having to make a conscious choice (as I assume you are doing here).

    Is it time for a Carnivorous Plant Watch card education project similar to the Sea Food Watch program at Monterey Bay Aquarium?

    Is it the general consumer causing this problem or is it every carnivorous plant growing enthusiast that doesn’t bark publicly in disgust at their colleagues who are obviously driving this trade?

    Would you like to buy a Certified Poached Free carnivorous plant?

    Unfortunately right now that makes as much ethical sense as buying a Certified Domesticated Panda, but I do think it is a start.

  6. My thinking is, that if they now only exist in captivity (do plants exist in captivity?) – as it is our fault as a species, then it must therefore be our responsibility to see that they don’t become totally extinct. And a university collection is very probably a good place for that. If the plant had been poached, my answer might be different. But as things stand, unless we want the plants to disappear utterly (which strikes me as a pointless and counter-productive form of hair-shirt-wearing) – then take it. Propagate it, Guerilla garden in back to the wild. (I seem to have turned into the Onceler…)

    Is it a spontaneous mutation? If so, more may occur…

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