Image: The Spinoff/Getty Images
Image: The Spinoff/Getty Images

SocietyJuly 8, 2021

You might be harbouring an illegal house plant

Image: The Spinoff/Getty Images
Image: The Spinoff/Getty Images

Got a Chinese money plant on your windowsill? Turns out, you’re technically breaking the law.

Five years ago, the internet came to the shocking conclusion that gardening in New Zealand was banned. And while the whole thing was actually just an elaborate hoax orchestrated to take the piss out of unassuming foreigners on Reddit, it turns out that when it comes to house plants, it’s not as far-fetched as you think.

From your Pilea peperomioides to your Philodendron pedatum, a range of highly sought-after house plants have been targeted by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) in recent years. The former, for example, otherwise known as the UFO plant or the Chinese money plant, saw a surge in online popularity around 2017. When MPI caught wind of it and found no legal record of the plant’s existence in New Zealand, it was deemed a “new organism” and quickly proceeded to crack down on sellers and growers harvesting the plant.

Pilea peperomioides (Photo: Getty Images)

But the list of “illegal” house plants doesn’t stop there. In an application filed to the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) by MPI last year, the Philodendron schottii, the Philodendron squamiferum, and the Alocasia clypeolata (also referred to as the Alocasia “green shield”) were also found to be “new organisms”.

The reason for this is because of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 (HSNO) which saw the EPA tasked with drawing up a list of all plants present in New Zealand before 1998. Any plant not on the list – with no evidence to support its historic existence – would likely then be considered a “new organism” making it “illegal to own, import, propagate or trade”, according to Peter Thomson, MPI’s director of animal and plant health.

“There’s an enormous number of plant species and their cultivars in existence, even in New Zealand. Records are incomplete, so no one can reasonably know every plant species that collectors hold here. It’s only when trade in the more popular ones becomes apparent that MPI can look into their presence in New Zealand,” says Thomson. 

Alocasia ‘green shield’ clypeolata (Photo: Wikimedia)

According to Kathryn Hurr, biosecurity and technical manager at the industry group New Zealand Plant Producers (NZPPI), the HSNO Act was “never a comprehensive list of plants in New Zealand in 1998 … but a comprehensive list would’ve also been impossible to do”. She says in the last few years, the HSNO Act has struggled to keep up against the exploding popularity of indoor house plants, driven in large part by social media – something that didn’t exist when the legislation was first drawn up. As a result, there are now more varieties than ever on the market, leaving many species stuck in a sort of “grey zone” or “no man’s land”, particularly when they’re found to cause little harm but have no evidence to prove they were around prior to 1998. 

Anecdotal evidence for the Pilea peperomioides, for example, suggests they’ve been in New Zealand for the last 30 or so years. But with no conclusive evidence to support this, MPI cracked down on them until a risk assessment found they were unlikely to be invasive to the environment. Since then, it’s taken a more pragmatic approach, recognising that because they’re so widespread among house plant enthusiasts, eradicating them completely would be an impossible task.  

Philodendron pedatum (Photo: Wikimedia)

For house plant enthusiasts, however, the lack of clarity around what is and isn’t allowed has naturally caused confusion. Facebook groups often see members asking for MPI’s “list of banned plants”, while auctions for illegal plants continue to pop up on marketplaces like Trade Me from users either unaware or unbothered by MPI’s inconsistent enforcement. And because these plants aren’t widely available – most commercial nurseries refuse to touch anything remotely illegal – many are being sold privately for exorbitant sums. For example, a Florida Ghost (considered to be a hybrid of the Philodendron pedatum and squamiferum) recently attracted more than 265 bids on Trade Me before closing for a total of $12,250.

Adding further confusion is the fact that the Plants Biosecurity Index (PBI), which is a database of species approved for import into New Zealand, is sometimes used as an indicator of a plant’s status with the EPA. However, that doesn’t mean a species not on the PBI is automatically considered a “new organism” under the HSNO and, therefore, illegal to be propagated or sold. Peperomia prostrata (string of turtles) and Monstera adansonii (monkey mask), for example, are popular varieties not listed on the PBI but still sold at official retailers within New Zealand. 

Peperomia prostrata, or string of turtles, is not a recognised species on the PBI

Daniel Kubler, group buyer at Kings Plant Barn, says that given how many species were already widespread yet overlooked when the official list was made, “it can be quite difficult for individual enthusiasts to differentiate between a plant [which traces back to the] 1960s and a plant that might’ve been smuggled into the country in 2019 when all they have to go off of is whether or not it’s on the Plants Biosecurity Index (PBI).”

“Personally, I think the issue is that the plant community never gets the full story as to why they’re suddenly ‘illegal’,” says Rachel Postma, a recent house plant enthusiast and founder of propagation business GrowingGreen. “They might be banned because they could pose a threat to our ecosystem, but a lot of people keep trading them not knowing whether they’re a threat or not,” she says. “We never get the full story so it’s hard to tell.” (The Tradescantia “pink princess” and “golden girl” varieties, for example, which were widely available in garden centres a few years back, are considered “unwanted organisms” under the Biosecurity Act rather than “new organisms under the HSNO. “Unwanted organisms” are classified as pests that could potentially cause harm to the environment.)

Listings currently on Trade Me and Facebook Marketplace

Thomson says MPI understands it may be difficult for plant collectors to determine which varieties are prohibited and which aren’t. “For this reason, we recommend they make checks for their own assurance before buying, including seeking information on where a plant has come from,” he says.

“Collectors who are holding plants that are classified as ‘new organisms’ need to be aware that they may be breaking the law by being in possession of these plants. MPI does have an option to take enforcement action where any offending, or any biosecurity risk, comes to its notice.”

Trade Me’s head of trust and safety Lisa Kerr also warned that any sellers attempting to sell illegal plants may be banned from the site. “We have a trusted working relationship with MPI and if we have any concerns about a plant listing onsite we will get in touch with them. Likewise, if they raise any concerns with us, we would help them in any way we can.”

At NZPPI, Hurr says the group has already been working to get certain varieties approved for sale and import. Last year, it succeeded in getting EPA approval for the Rhaphidophora tetrasperma (aka mini Monstera) and is now looking to do the same but under the “full release” criteria for several more species, including the Pilea peperomioides. Currently, getting full release approval from the EPA is no easy feat: since the HSNO Act came into force in 1998, not a single plant has been granted approval. And with an application fee costing close to $30,000 with no guarantee of success, plant importers have simply avoided using the system altogether. 

NZPPI, however, says in going through with the process, it hopes to gain a better understanding of how things work and, hopefully, change the system for the better. “Our aim is to get them officially approved for sale in New Zealand, so that commercial plant producers can propagate them and make them available to the public legally and at a reasonable price.”

According to NZPPI, house plant species currently being traded on social media sites but which aren’t on the MPI Plants Biosecurity Index (PBI) include:

Pilea peperomioides, Macodes petola, Anthurium veitchii, Anthurium clarinervium, Peperomia rotundifolia, Peperomia prostrata (string of turtles),Senecio peregrinus (string of dolphins), Philodendron verrucosum , Calathea musaica (Goeppertia kegeljanii), Calathea orbifolia, Monstera standleyana, and Monstera adansonii (monkey mask).

Applications made by NZPPI through the EPA’s full release criteria and projects such as Taking Stock to try and resolve the status of some of these plants so far include:

Monstera standleyana (five holes plant), Calathea orbifolia, Pilea peperomioides, Macodes petola, Anthurium veitchii, Anthurium clarinervium, Peperomia rotundifolia, and Calathea musaica.

NB: this article has been amended to clarify the status of plants classified as “new organisms” and plants not currently listed on the PBI. 

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