Plant Poaching and Cypripedium parviflorum
For the first time in the Colorado Natural Heritage Program’s history, they have sent interns from their Siegele conservation science internship to work with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). I happen to be the lucky intern who got placed with the USFS’ botany crew in the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland district. Thus, I have been spending my days in the majesty of northern Colorado’s mountain ranges surveying for rare plants and mapping noxious weeds.
Today, I strolled into the office at the usual 7am to find the entirety of our four-person crew stationed outside my supervisor’s office. They were all noticeably chipper, especially for it being a mere hour-and-a-half since the sun came up. When they told me what we would be doing for the day, I perked up too; the four of us would be inspecting a forest service site where an instance of plant poaching had occurred a few weeks prior.
If you’re anything like me, you might not have known that there was a market for the illegal trade of plants, or plant poaching. Yet, it happens on a daily basis, and causes an estimated $2 trillion in economic damage per year (Lavorgna, A et al., 2020). Plant poaching may not receive the same attention as large animal poaching, but it has the same, if not larger, detrimental impacts on the surrounding ecosystem. Illegal plant harvesting can disrupt symbiotic relationships a species has with pollinators, which limits the diet of insectivores, and continues to cause a ripple effect throughout the entire system. This ultimately reduces biodiversity and makes that ecosystem more vulnerable to disturbances. In another more anthropocentric view, the extinction of a specific plant’s population could remove genes that code for a chemical capable of saving thousands of human lives. Plant poaching is also much easier to carry out than large animal poaching, in both the initial removal and the sale of an individual. In essence, the illegal trade of plants is a huge problem that goes largely unrecognized by the public.
In our case of plant poaching, the perpetrators had uprooted numerous individuals of a rare orchid named Cypripedium parviflorum, or Yellow Lady’s Slipper. This particular orchid is ranked by the CNHP as G5/S2, meaning it is globally secure, but imperiled in the state of Colorado due to a “very restricted range, very few populations (often 20 or fewer), steep declines, or other factors making it very vulnerable to extirpation from the nation or state” (NatureServe, 2022). Cypripedium parviflorum is endangered because it is incredibly susceptible to environmental changes. In order for it to thrive, it depends on a mycorrhizal relationship with fungus in the soil. In this relationship, the orchid provides the fungus with sugars and the fungus provides the orchid with energy and nutrients. Most orchids have a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi, but some are more reliant on this relationship than others. Cypripedium parviflorum and other members of the Lady’s slipper genus are particularly dependent on this symbiosis, so when they are abruptly uprooted and detached from their fungi counterparts, they almost certainly die (U.S. Forest Service, n.d.). That’s what makes the poaching of this plant particularly upsetting to me. Not only are people choosing to remove a rare plant from its natural habitat for aesthetics, they aren’t doing enough research to know it’ll wilt before it reaches their doorstep.
After investigating the poaching of Cypripedium parviflorum, my crew went to the site of our next rare plant’s location, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that striking yellow flower. By that night, I had decided I needed to write my blog post on this experience. The poaching of plants is causing the colors of our forest to fade. It is pertinent that we are the best stewards of the land we can be, and I hope this article provides another insight on how to do so.
Lavorgna, A., Middleton, S.E., Whitehead, D., Cowell, C., Payne, M. (2020). FloraGuard: Tackling the illegal trade in endangered plants. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
NatureServe. (2022). Conservation Status Assessment: Identifying At-Risk Species and Ecosystems. Retrieved from https://www.natureserve.org/conservation-status-assessment
The U.S. Forest Service. (n.d.). About the Slipper Orchids. Retrieved from