There is something so hugely intriguing about cacti and succulents that thrive in the harshest conditions and adapt to their environments, often by forming curious shapes, spines, hair and powdery coating to help them survive the harsh sun and lack of water. It’s no wonder there has been a rise in the popularity of unusual cacti and succulents as more and more people have plants in their homes and are searching for something ‘a bit different’. However this quest for the unusual and the vast amounts of money pumped into the industry each day has led to an increase in the poaching of ‘unusual’ plants.

We were lucky to catch up with two brilliant UK businesses to get their input on this important matter; Curious Cacti and Mint. We find out how to ensure you’re not buying poached plants and how to spot a poached plant.

Hayley, owner of Mint Plants in Bristol with a stall packed full of unusual cacti and succulents at Green Rooms Market event
Hayley, owner of Mint Plants in Bristol

Mint is a Bristol plant shop run by Hayley and her family, specialising in sourcing the most unusual plants for their loyal customers. Find Mint at Grown & Thrown our collaboration with Independent Ceramics Market on 21st May in Walthamstow.

Alanna and Jack, owners of Curious Cacti standing behind a stall packed full of unusual cacti and succulents at a Green Rooms Market event
Alanna and Jack, owners of Curious Cacti

Curious Cacti are a relative newcomer to the houseplant retail scene, run by very knowledgeable and passionate Jack and Alanna who grow and sell unusual cacti from their Hampshire base. Find Curious Cacti at Grown & Thrown our collaboration with Independent Ceramics Market on 21st May in Walthamstow.

Are there any particular types of cacti or succulents that are most commonly victims of poaching?

Jack from Curious Cacti: Most often, poached plants are from Mexico, U.S.A or South Africa as these are the original habitats for many rare plants. Most frequently we have seen Lophophora, Conophytum, Ariocarpus and caudex plants being sold with obvious poached signs. A core reason for these in particular is because they are slow growing, making the sought after plants a quick and easy sale for the poachers.

Hayley from Mint: Yes Jack is correct, lots of the restricted species like Lophophora and Trichocereus are prolifically poached, along with slow growing unusual caudex varieties such as the Stephania. We no longer sell any Stephania species, the large ones you can get on the European market have grown so long in habitat, it’s like reselling your granny! Because these plants are difficult to artificially propagate, people just whip them out of habitat. It’s very sad.

Ariocarpus retusus var. furfuraceus growing in nursery pot
Ariocarpus retusus var. furfuraceus from Curious Cacti's personal collection
Lophophora wiliamsii growing in nursery pot
Lophophora wiliamsii from Curious Cacti's personal collection

What impact does poaching have on the natural habitat?

Jack from Curious Cacti: Climate change is a big enough issue in itself, with fluctuating temperatures affecting the population levels of these plants and the theft is just exacerbating this decline. The fewer plants there are also means that pollination is exacerbated, and the plants are less likely to set seed for the next generation of plants.

Hayley from Mint: Each species of plant has its own place in the ecosystem of its natural habitat. If you take these out, a whole host of upper and lower species that depend on or were depended on by the plant are wiped out. Not just animals, other plants and fungi sometimes too. There’s so much more to it than having a pretty item on your windowsill.

As a seller of unusual cacti and succulents, what measures do you take to ensure that the plants you sell are not poached?

Jack from Curious Cacti: As a very small business (run by two), we buy our rare plants in small batches that are hand selected by us from reputable individuals within the UK. Buying from those we know and trust, individually inspecting the plants for telltale signs and never handling masses of rare cacti, automatically decrease the risk of the plants being from poached origins.

Our UK suppliers mainly grow their plants from seed, many of which they remember sowing (some people are just a little older than their plants!). We sell for the love of the plants as our private collection already takes up two greenhouses and talking to customers, collectors and other sellers about the hobby is what got us into this.

Hayley from Mint: At Mint we keep on top of the market and the industry and make sure we don’t buy those that are at risk of coming from being poached, or their origins cannot be verified. Our European suppliers are also very on it. The new CITES regulation (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) states that all species of Cactacea (cacti) are listed, with a few exceptions, meaning most cacti can no longer be purchased from our regular house plant wholesalers.

As a result, we have switched to sourcing much of our cacti & succulent collections from UK sellers where, as Jack said, they have either been grown from seed or propagation many years ago. A few of the plants we have were grown from original specimens collected across the world in the 70s and 80s, before this was prohibited. When we come across a plant like this, we make sure to pass this information on to the customer, just so they can be aware.

Various unusual cacti and succulents in pots
Various unusual succulents sourced by Mint
Euphorbia horrida plant with big spikes in pot from Mint
Succulent Euphorbia horrida from Mint

As a customer, how can we make sure we are not buying poached plants?

Jack from Curious Cacti: The best way to identify if a plant is or is not poached is through research of what the plant looks like in habitat versus what it looks like in collections or conservation. Often those selling poached plants will have many for sale, not just a handful, and so a plentiful supply is also something to look out for.

Habitat collected plants will often look shrivelled, the plant colour will often be darker/ malnourished looking and have a flat under-grown look. Those that are not habitat collected plants will often look plump and full of healthy growth. Now, there is an anomaly where people subject their non-poached plants to particularly harsh conditions with the ‘in habitat' look being the end goal. These cases can be particularly difficult to identify if the seller is telling the truth or not but there are many forums such as those on the British Cacti and Succulent Society website, that can help with any uncertainties.

Hayley from Mint: Jack is spot on! Let’s take the UK for example, if you were to see a plant out in a wild hedgerow, you’ve got nobody maintaining it, chopping dead leaves off, watering and feeding adequately and preparing it to look perfect for sale. This means the natural plant will often be marked, warped, broken in places or have imperfections. If you were to find that same plant in a garden centre or plant shop, it’d look perfect.

It’s also a good idea to research the speed at which these things grow. You can grow a small Monstera plant in a few weeks very quickly and cheaply from seed, so you wouldn’t be too worried about it being grabbed out of the wild. For these rarer cacti & succulent types, it’s much more important to know the origin and be aware of the risks.

A huge thanks to Jack and Hayley for their input on this important matter. Don't forget you can meet and buy from both Curious Cacti and Mint on Sunday 21st May at our event Grown & Thrown in Walthamstow, London.