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Bad Seed Scammers Are Exploiting the Internet’s Rare Houseplant Hysteria | #ukscams | #datingscams | #european | #datingscams | #love | #relationships | #scams | #pof | #match.com | #dating

One night in January 2023, a thief, undetected, slithered into a Kentucky store. The assailant was not after jewels, designer clothing, or TVs. They were looking for rare houseplants — some worth as much as $500 apiece. 

The next morning, employees inspecting the store — Wilson Nurseries and Plant Co., located in Lexington, Kentucky — discovered that about 30 plants, together worth about $5,000, had disappeared. 

The thief likely had sophisticated knowledge of the rare plant world: They handpicked a Philodendron “Ring of Fire,” a Monstera “Thai Constellation,” a Syngonium “Strawberry Ice,” and certain hard-to-find Hoyas, among other varieties. 

A thief cut through the plastic tarp protecting the plants inside Wilson Nurseries and Plant Co., making off with up to 30 plants. Courtesy Wilson Nurseries and Plant Co./Facebook

The average gardener might not recognize these plants. But they would immediately be familiar to the burgeoning community of exotic houseplant collectors online, some of whom pay thousands of dollars for particularly rare strains.

The nursery’s longtime owner, Jennifer Wilson, told The Messenger a detective from the Lexington Police Department had poured over photos of the stolen plants, committing to memory the size and shape of each leaf so they could spot the missing merchandise on Facebook Marketplace. 

But now, several months later, authorities still haven’t located a perpetrator — or even a suspect — and Wilson fears the thief got away with it.

Wilson’s business is among an increasing number of nurseries and botanical gardens around the world that have fallen victim to rare plant heists over the past few years. These robberies became more prolific once the pandemic hit; exploding demand, driven by a desire to populate a home with rare plants during lonely days spent working remotely, incentivized thieves.

In 2022, burglars busted through the window of a newly opened houseplant store in Davis, California, making off with a “Thai Constellation” valued at $2,000. And this past June, a succulent from South Africa worth about $1,000 was swiped from the University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden.

Rare plant heists are common, occurring all over the world, experts told The Messenger. But as common as they are, there are no good solutions yet to stop them from happening. 

Ethical minefields and unregulated spaces

As more people aspire to become rare plant owners, a new ecosystem of fraudsters has emerged to exploit the exotic plant frenzy — with botany lovers often ripped off in the process. 

Reddit abounds with horror stories of enthusiasts purchasing a rare plant online, only to be sent an entirely different species — or a specimen that has already died. Unsavory sellers on Etsy and eBay post photos of fully grown plants while writing in the listing’s fine print that only the plants’ cuttings are for sale. In one infamous case, a vendor selling a plant that had become a viral sensation due to its naturally pink leaves was accused of using hormone-inducing gas to change its color artificially. 

Such practices aren’t technically illegal but fuel hostility and make collecting more inaccessible for everyday enthusiasts. On other occasions though, endangered plants plucked from the wild blend with those that are carefully sourced from distributors, creating an ethical minefield for anyone who purchases plants via the web. 

“The selling of poached plants on sites such as Etsy and eBay is illegal but not policed,” Jeff Pavlat, the president of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America (CSSA), told The Messenger. “The CSSA conservation committee reports sellers as we find them but they often create new accounts and continue selling.”

The regulatory arm that oversees international and illegal trade of endangered plants and animals — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) — was signed in 1973 by 183 nations, plus the European Union. 

CITES, along with other international groups such as Interpol and the World Customs Organization, have for years tracked the illegal plant trade. In 2022, hundreds of cacti and orchids, as well as 3.5 tons of unidentified plants, were seized at land and air border checkpoints. 

Some years’ hauls are far bigger: In 2020, CITES counted nearly 14 tons of seized plants.

These estimates, though surprising, might not even reflect reality, Ben Janse van Rensburg, chief of the enforcement unit at CITES, told The Messenger. That’s because the convention relies largely on countries independently reporting their findings. Afghanistan has not submitted findings in three years, while Azerbaijan has for the past six years. For its part, the U.S. failed to submit results in 2021 and 2022.

“There are some countries with limited capacity that are not yet able to gather the data,” Rensburg said. “And some countries find it very difficult to consolidate the data from all these different sources.”

Customs agents, police, and wildlife authorities may make separate arrests or use their own reporting systems — even within the same nation.

Besides the lack of data, Jared Margulies, a geographer at the University of Alabama who studies plant trafficking, told The Messenger it’s hard to quantify the scale of the illegal plant trade because traffickers constantly find new ways to conceal their practices and misdirect regulators. 

And because houseplants are rarely labeled “endangered” by international standards, the extent that those plants are trafficked is even less well understood.

“It’s always a question of estimation and speculation when it comes to illicit markets,” Margulies said. 

‘You feel violated and you lose trust’

In the aftermath of the robbery at Wilson Nursery, the staff came up with a new rule: The rarest plants would be placed in glass cases at night so they’d be better protected from potential thieves. During the day, meanwhile, employees would leave the cases unlocked and open so customers could easily browse and examine the plants inside. 

For a few months, the policy worked as intended. 

The glass cases which hold rare plants at Wilson Nurseries’ Franfort location. Courtesy Mads Plants/TikTok/Screenshot

Then one Saturday in June, employees at the nursery’s Frankfort location discovered at the end of the day that three of their most valuable plants, each worth $300 to $400, had been ripped from the medium they were stored in and hauled away in broad daylight. 

Now, the glass cases remain locked, even during the day.

“We have all these customers who come back over and over, or sometimes a couple of times a week, and then this happens and you feel violated and you lose trust,” Wilson said. “And you think, do I even know who my customers are now?” Wilson didn’t bother pressing charges, but the robbery took a hit on her team’s morale. “All of those things just add up to this feeling [that] we don’t know when it’s going to happen next.” 

It can take several months for nurseries to acquire new plants, especially those considered rare. “So if a $900 plant is stolen, and let’s say we purchased that plant directly or indirectly from Thailand or a grower in Florida, then that affects our ability to buy another one and to make that available to other plant collectors who are honest — and who aren’t thieves,” Wilson said.

Social media drives the demand

There would be little reason to steal plants if there wasn’t already a rabid fanbase of botanical collectors waiting in line to take them off thieves’ hands. Although the latest houseplant boom is often cited as coinciding with the start of the pandemic, when people took up new hobbies during quarantine, Wilson said the resurgence dates as far back as 10 years ago. 

Aroids, a class of tropical plants that include Pothos, Philodendrons, and Monsteras, became especially popular in the 2010s because their retro aesthetic meshed with a renewed interest in mid-century furniture, architecture, and foliage. 

In past decades, small groups of aroid lovers attended quaint conventions in Southern Florida to exchange rare breeds. Now, the tropical family, including the varieties stolen from Wilson Nurseries, are hugely popular among hardcore collectors and fetch some of the highest prices online. 

Nick Alexander, a plant care YouTuber with nearly 52,000 subscribers, told The Messenger that the majority of collectors start out with a genuine desire to own plants for the sheer enjoyment of nurturing them and watching them grow. 

But the hunt for ever-rarer varieties can lead some enthusiasts to subconsciously focus on the scarcity of a particular plant rather than more practical considerations, such as how easy it is to care for or whether it fits into one’s personal space. 

“It’s very odd to me when suddenly millions of people like the same plant,” Alexander said. “I don’t know if some people are actually in love with the plants, or they’re in love with the concept of having something that other people don’t have.”

Plants may be deemed rare for several reasons: Some may grow very slowly or may be difficult to propagate. Others have unique characteristics like variegation — when a single leaf contains a variety of shades — which can drastically increase value. 

But some factors are entirely subjective and bound by the community’s collective taste. One exceptionally expensive plant, the Monstera obliqua, looks almost identical to the relatively low-cost Monstera adansonii — collectors often have a hard time telling them apart. 

Demand is driven in large part by social media, with YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram breeding a new generation of online ‘plantfluencers’ who adorn their living rooms and feeds with rare varieties, shaping which plants will become the next to go viral. On TikTok alone, 5.1 billion people have viewed videos with the #PlantTok hashtag. 

And as sellers hype up certain “holy grail” varieties, collectors in turn pay eye-watering prices for them. In 2021, a white variegated Rhaphidophora tetrasperma sold for about $19,200 at a New Zealand auction. Today, one seller lists a mint Monstera on Etsy for $25,000, which as of the time of writing, is already in someone’s cart. 

White monstera plant for sale on Etsy
Etsy seller FloraExotica lists a rare mint Monstera for $25,000. FloraExotica/Etsy/ScreenshotEtsy

Even as aroids continue to grow in popularity across the U.S., succulents are now “hugely popular” in parts of Asia, due in large part to their rarity, Pavlat of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America said: “They’re just growing them almost like trophies that they have.” 

But oftentimes, these plants don’t last long, especially if they’re taken out of their native environment or not cared for properly — and most of the time, Pavlat said, they’re not. 

Globally, plants with medicinal value are passed through illegal markets, too, Rensburg with CITES told The Messenger. Data shows lots of medicinal products derived from plants are commonly seized all over the world, including Thailand, the United States, Switzerland, and Indonesia. 

‘Criminals are very clever’

Wilson wagers that the burglar from the January heist might be holding on to his or her stolen merchandise and waiting for authorities to lose interest in the case. The irony is that if the thief waits too long, the plants he or she possesses may become far less valuable. Over time, as more people propagate rare plants and share or sell their cuttings, prices inevitably drop — a boom-and-bust cycle that Wilson said is virtually impossible to predict. 

As Alexander, the YouTuber, joked in a video essay about the rare plant trade, “There’s nothing more demoralizing than having spent a disproportionate amount of time, money, and energy on a plant only to find it now withering en masse on the begrimed floor of a Walmart supercenter in Michigan.”

Alexander thinks a psychological shift might be in order. “The rare plant thing was kind of the basis on which a lot of creators and nurseries grew,” Alexander said. But if the “rarity” of a plant has less weight in the world of collecting, it might be easier for people to appreciate other qualities. “If you took that label away, it would reduce all of the people wanting to vie for the same thing.”

In the meantime, the internet’s lust for rare plants will likely encourage more unethical sales tactics as well as flat-out fraud and burglary. “Criminals are very clever, and they know where markets exist. And they know if they acquire their stuff illegally, they can sometimes produce it at better prices,” Rensburg said. “It’s very much a market-driven, demand-driven thing.”

Still, internet users are becoming more savvy about detecting scammers. Moderators on Reddit’s “Take a Plant, Leave a Plant,” which fosters informal trades between collectors, keep track of problematic addresses and zip codes so that repeat offenders can be weeded out, Alexander says. eBay and other sites, meanwhile, offer guarantees, so buyers can receive a full refund if a damaged plant arrives at their doorstep.

Buyers should also pay attention to the seller. Legitimate businesses that sell rare plants have been in the industry for a long time because these plants require long-lasting care, Pavlat said. Illegal rare plants might be sold by new businesses that just popped up and opened shop. 

“We like to think that the plant community is a group of people who love plants, who have this common interest, and that we’re all good people. And I think most of us are,” Wilson said. As for the minority of toxic collectors and sellers: “They have no place in this, and in the end, they’re bad for all of us.”


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