In Pennsylvania, rare and highly in demand plants are being hidden from thieves planning to sell them illegally on the black market. Although it might seem strange to have a plant black market in Pennsylvania, collectors, exotic gardeners, and other plant enthusiasts are willing to pay a lot of money for specific plants. Within the upcoming year, environmental experts will be flocking to Bedford County in Pennsylvania in order to update the roster of its rare, threatened, and unique plants for the very first time in 26 years.
However, if the current inventory in Bedford County is any indication of what types of plants might be there, the majority of them could be listed as “unnamed due to special protection.” These plants are extremely valuable and occasionally at risk for extinction. Their identities are not disclosed due to the possibility of thieves or the plants being sold on the black market. All across the state, the plants are at risk of being stolen and sold to foreign markets and high-end restaurants. According to Bedford County’s Natural Heritage Inventory, there are currently eight locations that feature a secret species. Across the state of Pennsylvania, government agencies try to avoid disclosing information about the locations of highly sought-after plants such as rare orchids and ginseng.
Reports of plant theft are called in quite frequently, forcing Pennsylvania to hide their rare plants in an effort to protect them. One environmental expert mentioned that law enforcement does not seem to take the threats of plant theft seriously because they typically do not understand the danger that the underground industry poses. Particularly in rural, forested, and mountainous areas such as central Pennsylvania, the risk is higher for wild plants due to their exposure and easy access.
The most sought-after plant is ginseng, which is most commonly found in traditional Asian medicine, tea, and energy drinks. It usually grows in the Appalachians but professional growers will also raise the ginseng plants on forested farmland, and will then harvest the roots in accordance to state law between the months of September and November. It is against the law in the state of Pennsylvania to take ginseng from forested areas, however, people continue to harvest the roots illegally. Some will trespass onto private land in order to dig up the ginseng while others steal directly from the professional growers themselves. One farmer from northeastern Pennsylvania had found his land one day dotted with holes where all the ginseng used to be, and another grower became a victim while away at a conference about ginseng theft.
In terms of plant theft, the law in Pennsylvania shows signs of corruption due to ignorance. Even though plant-poaching arrests are difficult to make, even when someone is accused, they are usually let off the hook with a $25 fine and misdemeanor even if they had stolen thousands of dollars worth of ginseng from a farmer. Pennsylvania still has to hide their rare plants in order to protect them, but the secrecy remains so that growers and farmers have a fair chance of making money for their hard work without the interruption of plant poachers.
By Laura “Addi” Simmons
United States Botanic Garden