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.
California Fish and Wildlife Warden Pat Freeling is no stranger to poachers attempting to pilfer the fruits of Northern California parklands.
“Historically, one of my major areas of concentration has been abalone poaching,” he said. That’s changed in the last few years.
In December of 2017, a tipster alerted Freeling that a man was holding up the line at a neighborhood post office trying to ship dozens of packages, some of which appeared to be leaking dirt. When pressed, the man reportedly told the woman the packages contained something “very valuable,” while pointing to the ocean. Suspecting him to be poaching abalone, she alerted authorities. The postal inspector, upon x-raying the boxes, didn’t find sea creatures, but dozens of Dudleya.
The following month, Freeling met a man stuffing Dudleya into his backpack on a Mendocino cliffside. He told Freeling he’d visited the same location 10 to 12 times before.
The incidents continued, and Freeling realized he’d stumbled into something big, and potentially organized. He now regularly scans the bluffs he patrols for suspicious-looking folks, carrying large backpacks or poking their noses around cliff crevices where Dudleya often grow.
As recently as February, Monterey County District Attorney Jeannine M. Pacioni announced two Southern California residents — Guanrong Rivera, 49, and Jose Luis Rivera, 64 — were convicted for poaching succulents off the coast of Garrapata State Park after CDFW discovered about 600 Dudleyas inside the couple’s garage. At that time, Guanrong Rivera admitted she had pilfered succulents from the Big Sur area on a recent vacation, which she intended to sell to customers in China, according to CDFW.
Mr. Rivera was sentenced to 40 days in county jail, three years of informal probation and fined $4,018. His wife was sentenced to 179 days in county jail, three years formal probation and fined more than $20,000, including making a contribution to CDFW and paying restitution to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. The couple is forbidden from stepping foot on any national or state park in California.
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. In the U.S., succulents can be found anywhere from grocery stores to trendy clothing shops and everywhere in between. At Urban Outfitters, you can buy a t-shirt with “Don’t Be a Prick” scribbled with succulents. Crate and Barrel sells artificial succulents in a pot for $49.95. And Etsy — ground zero for trendy crafted goods — offers everything from succulent rings to infant onesies reading, “What’s up succa?”
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.
Large-scale poaching of Dudleya can have multiple impacts, he said. For one, tearing the specimens from their cliffside habitats can lead to erosion, endangering hikers and the poachers themselves.
The real threat is posed at California biodiversity. Dudleya occupy a “very narrow niche” of the state, Van Hattem said. “They’re not everywhere, and there’s just not many of them.” The plants also face pressure from invasive non-native species, like ice plants and pampus grass, “that are basically kicking the Dudleya out through invasion.”
“If this goes unchecked, we could be without Dudleya,” Van Hattem stressed.
For Freeling, the takeaway message is one he’s been preaching for decades: “If we had people taking every little pretty critter and plant, we’d have nothing left.”
“Go to a nursery and buy them.”
CDFW asks the public reports possible poachers and polluters by calling the anonymous tip line 1-888-334-CalTIP.
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