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Botanic Garden Scientists Save Smuggled Plants

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Wallick holds one of the CITES plants that he's helping to preserve at the botanical garden.
Jessica Gould
Wallick holds one of the CITES plants that he's helping to preserve at the botanical garden.

Across the country, federal officials patrol airports and harbors looking for plants being smuggled across our borders. Many of those plants end up at the U.S. Botanic Garden's facility in Southwest D.C.

Plant detention center is a picturesque prison

Inside the U.S. Botanic Garden's production facility, a soft mist floats down on a tangle of green leaves and colorful flowers. With 34 greenhouses and 30,000 plants, the glass-enclosed campus just off Interstate-295 is one of the lushest spots in Washington.

But it's also a detention center of sorts for the undocumented immigrants of the plant world that are detained under an international treaty known as CITES (Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora).

"And the idea is to restrict trade or trafficking in those plants that are considered threatened or endangered in their native habitats, says Kyle Wallick, a botanist at the Botanic Garden.

He says not every plant is actually smuggled intentionally.

"Sometimes it is just a matter of not having the proper paperwork, just like people going border to border without visas," he explains.

Other times, he says, endangered plants, such as orchids, are torn from the ground and stuffed into suitcases so they can fetch a pretty price from collectors.

"The goal with smuggling orchids is to make money. Orchids bring a high dollar," Wallick says. "Also succulent cacti bring a high dollar in black market values amongst avid collectors."

Solving the mystery of smuggled plants

Countries usually have the option to take back their plants. But it's sometimes just too risky to return species to their homelands, Wallick says, because their habitats are being destroyed, or because poachers pose too great a threat.

"And that's where we come in as a CITES rescue center," he says.

The U.S. Botanic Garden is one of dozens of centers across the country that accept CITES plants. Once they arrive, the mystery of these plants really begins to unfold.

"In many cases, we simply don't know what they are. So we don't know the proper growing conditions required," he says.

And that can be extremely frustrating for true plant lovers.

"It kind of kills us at a Botanic Garden to have a plant and not know what it is, because we're plant geeks," he says.

"I was here in the 1990s for one of the largest shipments we ever received, which was a bunch of terrestrial orchids from Southeast Asia," says Bill McLaughlin, a curator with the Botanic Garden. "No labels were in the boxes, so we had to go through a process of waiting for years for them to bloom to figure them out. And usually even in the bud stage, we're starting to take some guesses and narrow it down.

"All of us have textbooks with photos in hand and as soon as it opens, we're like, 'A-ha! That’s what it is. I knew it," he continues.

Working with endangered plant species proves gratifying

McLaughlin says bringing CITES plants back from the brink and watching them thrive is one of the most rewarding things about his job.

"Because you're aware sometimes they've been hacked literally out of the ground without a lot of care," he says. "They may be 30 or 50 or 70 years old. So for me to have a plant rattling around in a box that's older than I am, it's an honor to be able to keep it, and have it going."

It seems for these plants, like many members of D.C.'s immigrant population, home isn't just where you come from -- it's also where you put down your roots.

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