BATIMORE, Md. — Inside the plant shop B. Willow, owner Liz Vayda carefully tends to her livelihood.
“Plants are the basis of life,” she said.
Yet, they’re also the basis of something else: a lucrative, illegal trade in plants poached from the wild, cacti and succulents, in particular.
“If someone’s buying a cactus, they need to know that,” Vayda said.
Out of the more than 1,800 known cactus species, about 1/3 of them are considered endangered.
Cacti are found in nearly every U.S. state, with the most varieties found in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Texas.
The vast majority of all the cacti in the world can only be found in the Americas, making them highly coveted. Recently, authorities in Italy recovered 1,000 rare cacti, which were poached from the wild in Chile and valued at $1.2 million.
Thieves dig the plants up from their native habitats and then turn around and sell them, usually online.
Upon learning of the plant poaching struggle, Vayda decided she and her Baltimore plant shop would do something about it.
“For me, personally, as a small growing business, my focus initially was very much on kind of ‘How can I bring environmentalism into my work?’” she said.
Plant sales are a big business, which has grown even more so during the pandemic. When compared to May 2019, plant sales in May 2020 were up nearly 11%, more than double the 4% sales increase of the previous year.
“The illegal trade and poaching of plants is very often overlooked,” said Barbara Goettsch of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Liz Vayda reached out to Goettsch, who is a cactus expert and the co-chair of the IUCN’s Cactus and Succulent Plants Specialist Group.
“Liz decided to support our work and I just find that incredible, right?” Goettsch said. “Because she’s an entrepreneur - a business selling plants - and she wants to return something to those plants.”
Vayda is also raising money to return poached plants to where they belong.
“It was 10% of sales every week, it was this virtual lecture, portion of specific plant sales – relatively small actions that helped to affect actual change,” Vayda said.
They’ve raised more than $1,000 so far. Vayda said she’s also careful to note where the plants she sells come from.
“I don’t stock anything that I can’t reliably get from our main suppliers who are selling cultivated plants,” she said.
For those in the market to buy greenery, she cautions: do your homework first, especially when shopping online. If the plants look weathered, like they have been out in the elements for a long time, or even damaged, that’s a red flag.
“It’s really when you get into independent sellers -- selling on the internet, eBay, Etsy,” Vayda said. “We don’t necessarily see plants in the same way because we just aren’t relating to them. They don’t have eyes; they don’t move around. We largely view them as inanimate objects and that is a big risk within the horticultural industry – is just breaking that kind of idea that plants are objects.”
Rather, she wants people to see plants as living, breathing examples of how Mother Nature can thrive in the harshest of environments.