MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Okay. So we've discussed people and animals as they move across our borders, but what about plants? It turns out migrates of the leafy and flowering variety also are hitching a ride into the U.S. Across the country, federal officials patrol airports and harbors looking for smuggled plants. And many of these specimens end up right here in the District, at an 85,000 square foot facility operated by the U.S. Botanic Garden. Jessica Gould gives us a glimpse of these rare and endangered species and the conservationists who care for them.
MS. JESSICA GOULD
Inside the U.S. Botanic Gardens 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 I-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.
MR. KYLE WALLICK
CITES is an international treaty. It stands the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora. There's about 125 member nations that have signed onto the treaty and the idea is to restrict trade or trafficking in those plants that are considered threatened or endangered in their native habitats.
That's Kyle Wallick, a botanist at the Botanic Garden.
Not every plant is actually smuggled intentionally. Sometimes it is just a matter of not having the proper paperwork, just like people going from border to border without having visas.
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. Also succulent cacti bring a high dollar in black market values amongst avid collectors.
Countries usually have the option to take back their plants, but Wallick says it's sometimes just too risky to return species to their homelands 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.
The U.S. Botanic Garden is one of about 65 centers across the country that accepts CITES plants. And Wallick says that is when the mystery of these plants really begins to unfold.
In many cases, we simply do not know what they are and so we don't know the proper growing conditions required.
And that can be extremely frustrating for true plant lovers.
MR. BILL MCLAUGHLIN
It kind of kills us at a botanic garden to have a plant and not know what it is because we're plant geeks.
Bill McLaughlin is a curator with the Botanic Garden.
I think I was here for one of the largest admits that we received in the '90s, which was a bunch of terrestrial orchids from Southeast Asia. They looked pretty sad. They looked like bad laundry. It only took about three or four weeks after being potted and watered and being placed in a humid environment that they started regaining their turgor pressure so the leaves started actually sort of unfolding, taking on their kind of leathery toughness that we associate with orchid leaves.
McLaughlin says these plants actually had a secret code revealing their identity.
A code letter was sent to the importer saying the second name in each of the hybrids is the actual species.
But he didn't know that at the time.
No labels were in the boxes so we had to go through a process of waiting for, in some cases years, for them to bloom to figure them out. So as soon as a bud is developing, you're already just salivating over the possibility of figuring out what it is and usually, even in the bud stage, we're starting to take some guesses and narrow it down. But, definitely, all of us have the textbooks in hand with photos and descriptions the day it opens and we go, ah-ha, that's it, it's primulinum. I knew it.
McLaughlin says bringing CITES plants back from the brink and watching them thrive is one of the most rewarding things about his job.
The plants that really get to me the most are Cycads and Cacti. They may be 30 or 50 or 75 years old and 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 growing.
These days, scientists take tissue samples from endangered plants and clone them so they're more plentiful and less valuable to traffic illegally. Meanwhile, McLaughlin says simply presenting these plants to the public helps spread the conservationist message.
So even though we can't return that plant to the place where it functions in nature, we can demonstrate to thousands and thousands of visitors exactly what that plant looks like and we hope it gives them a sense of respect and protection for the flora of the world.
After all, in a region full of immigrants, home isn't just where you come from, it's where you plant your roots. I'm Jessica Gould.
To see photographs of some of these endangered plants, head to our website, metroconnection.org.
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