If you read my last cactus blog, “I was rewarded with Ariocarpus Blooms,” December 23, 2022, I talked about the damage cactus poachers are doing to Ariocarpus populations in Texas and Mexico, and I promised to tell you more about how to spot these dastardly pirates and not support them. So here we go.

It is one thing to see cactus in the wild, in their natural habitat, and dig up one or two for your garden at home. But when whole colonies, entire populations of a species like Ariocarpus fissurata in Texas or Copiapoa cinerea in Chile are swooped down upon and ripped from the ground, leaving none to grow, flower, make seeds, and continue the species, well, that sets the plant up for extinction.

The plants these poachers dig up by the hundreds, nay, thousands in some cases, take decades and centuries to grow large enough to flower and produce seeds to supply seedlings in habitat to keep their kind alive. Copiapoas in Chile, for example, take over a hundred years to reach the size they are in habitat and flower, providing seeds for new plants. Large or small when dug up, poachers have no regard for the plants’ well-being, and by the time they are sold on the Internet, don’t live long after they are bought by someone who thinks they are getting a rare plant to add to their collection, or to simply brag about owning.

And even if the plants were given better care by their kidnappers, most of these rare plants that flood the market don’t do well out of their native habitat. It is difficult, even for experienced cactus growers, to replicate the growing environment for many of them, let alone someone who knows nothing about cactus, someone who might live in a city where the plant will be forced indoors, who can’t begin to provide the right soil, sun light, climate conditions, watering regimen, nothing that plant needs to survive.

And unsuspecting customers will have paid outrageous amounts of money for these plants that won’t thrive and probably won’t live.

Besides the danger of losing a species,  both cacti and other succulents play a vital role in dry ecosystems, providing food, water, and nesting sites for animals in deserts. They also  provide food and sustainable materials used by human populations in these areas, so it’s not just for cactus lovers that poachers need to be stopped.

So how do you know you might be buying from a poacher? For one thing, they advertise on social media, which is also where these plants are displayed as being something cool and worth paying ridiculous amounts of money for. never mind that nothing is said about how hard they are to grow and keep alive. And if the price really is ridiculous, that’s a pretty good sign you don’t want to buy it, even if you have that kind of money to throw around. The only way to stop these people is to not support them. They don’t care about the plants; they just want the money. If the market goes dry, then, hopefully, so will they.

So here’s what to consider when adding to your cactus collection. Be careful when buying online and buy from reputable nurseries and sellers. Be suspicious if the plant for sale is one at risk and is large in size. Because they are slow growers and take so long to grow in legitimate cultivation, that may be a good sign they were poached. Smaller plants grown in nursery conditions will be cleaner and undamaged because they have not had to deal with weather and animal damage; plants taken from habitat can show more wear and tear. If the plants are shown bare root, or with practically no roots at all, that is another sign they have been poached.

We have discussed these issues at CSSA (Cactus and Succulent Society of America) conventions and support conservation and protection of these plants. You can also find information on the subject at www.ethicalcactus.com and I encourage you to go there for more information and pictures illustrating some of the things I have discussed.

As you become more aware and know what to look for, it will be easier for you to grow your own ethical cactus collection, which is one way you can contribute to the longevity of the cactus family in all forms for future generations.