A Poaching Conspiracy Is Playing Out on Northern California’s Coastline

Michelle Robertson, SFGATE, March 22, 2019

Dudleya farinosa: The name sounds like a Harry Potter spell and, indeed, the native California succulent is nothing short of enchanting, with a lotus shape and waxy mint-colored leaves trimmed in red.

A handful of Asian countries — predominantly China and Korea — appear to be enthralled by the spindly plant, so much so that authorities have identified what looks to be an international conspiracy of Dudleya poaching along the craggy coastline of California.

Most Californians — if they know the plant at all — recognize Dudleya by a different name: bluff lettuce. The plant, native to coastal Northern California and Oregon, grows predominantly along ocean-facing cliffs, below the shrubbery and above the wave line.

Though altogether unremarkable as far as flora goes, Dudleya farinosa has captured the hearts of Chinese, Korean and Japanese collectors, some of whom are willing to pay upwards of $50 for a single plant, officials said.

Authorities have already prosecuted at least four separate criminal cases related to Dudleya poaching in California; the bulk of convicted individuals traveled from abroad. At least two additional Dudleya poaching cases are still in the courts.

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The outburst of demand for Dudleya started in the last decade, experts say, coinciding with the sudden global popularity of succulents as the hipster decor du jour. {snip}

Dudleya farinosa is easily purchased from a number of native plant sellers in California. At Yerba Buena Nursery in Half Moon Bay, you can buy a gallon — yes, a gallon — of Dudleya for $20. But that’s not what international collectors appear to be after. According to a Press Democrat investigation, “large, wild-harvested Dudleya are considered luxury items … Imperfections inflicted by the elements are a plus.”

Many of the specimens poachers are grabbing, said CDFW biologist Michael Van Hattem are “decades old.” Van Hattem has led multiple re-planting efforts, in Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

“These poachers are basically bypassing the decades that it takes the plants to reach the maturity level they’re at,” he said.

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