There is a mysterious black market for succulents poached from the California coast. A fascinating documentary follows the people trying to put an end to it
21 April 2021
Chelsi de Cuba and Gabriel de Cuba
Premiere at SXSW Film Festival, online 16-20 March
IN 2017, a post office in the small Californian community of Mendocino was experiencing delays because a man was mailing multiple boxes to Asia. Dirt was falling out of the mysterious packages, so local game warden Pat Freeling was alerted to investigate. When Freeling X-rayed the boxes, he found them full of succulents: plants with thick leaves for holding a lot of water so they can survive in arid regions.
This incident is used in documentary Plant Heist, directed by siblings Chelsi and Gabriel de Cuba, to demonstrate the tip of a growing black market in these plants.
The short film doesn’t explore the origins of the plant poaching, but social media may have something to do with it. Succulents such as Dudleya farinosa often appear on Pinterest and Instagram, generating interest among those looking for small, “cute” and ready grown plants.
Some 70 per cent of succulents are cultivated in California, but it is the popularity of the plants in Japan, China and South Korea that has driven the formal market and fuelled poaching over the past two decades.
One notable case took place in 2018, when three South Koreans were prosecuted for stealing about 5700 succulent plants worth a total of $600,000 from California with the intention of exporting them to Asia. In the film, Freeling recounts the events leading to the bust, which subsequently uncovered a profitable black market for D. farinosa.
When some natively grown succulents can sell for around $50 each, it is no wonder poachers wander round California taking them from public areas and private properties, or riskily pull full-grown plants from cliffs.
“The popularity of succulents in Japan, China and South Korea has also fuelled poaching”
With the prices of succulents increasing by 62 per cent between 2012 and 2017 in the US, the cost factor becomes Plant Heist‘s main focus.
Although the film includes interviews with Freeling and other law enforcement officers, local residents and environmentalists, it doesn’t fully explore the depth of consumer interest in the plants. There is a notable lack of interviews from those who collect, sell or even grow succulents, so we don’t see what is driving the demand at first hand or the effect that poaching is having on the commercial market.
Without this perspective, the narrative becomes unbalanced and fails to set the fullest context for poaching activities – beyond personal financial gain, that is.
Plant Heist also offers little insight into the environmental impact of removing succulents from their native habitat. Two researchers who feature in the film and could have added that depth are Stephen McCabe at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Brett Hall, director of the California Native Plant Program.
They talk briefly about how succulents are a source of food and water for local wildlife, as well as how rare plants are fast becoming targets for poachers. Yet their picture of the ecological impact of poaching fails to shift the direction of the documentary.
The majority of the film looks beautiful, thanks mainly to visuals from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and picture agency Shutterstock, but having the beauty come from elsewhere makes the aesthetic feel slightly artificial.
The severity of succulent poaching is underlined by the participation in the film of the CDFW and deputy district attorney for Monterey county, Emily Hickok, who reiterate that plant poaching not only poses a serious threat to Californian wildlife, but is also a criminal offence.
Overall, Plant Heist offers a brief yet captivating look into succulent poaching, while reiterating that something is being done to prevent this surprising yet growing crime.
Katie Smith-Wong is a film critic based in London
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