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Dozens of green plants in the shape of a pitcher.
Information icon Clump of green pitcher plants. Photo by Gary Peeples, USFWS.

Caution warranted when purchasing or propagating rare plants

When U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) botanist Carolyn Wells was recently called to investigate an undocumented occurrence of the federally endangered mountain sweet pitcher plant, a carnivorous plant found in some of Western North Carolina’s bogs, she did indeed find the rare plant – transplanted onto the shore of an impounded stream with virtually no record of when it had been placed there or where the original plants came from. It had also begun interbreeding with a more common pitcher plant that was also brought to the site.

“As a plant lover, I’m thrilled to see people who care about plants and want to do their best to help conserve them. As a scientist I get worried about unintended consequences to ongoing efforts to restore rare plants in the natural landscape,” said Wells.

The arrival of spring starts many people thinking about their gardening and landscaping, and rare plants will always be an object of desire for some plant enthusiasts. While well-meaning gardeners may see home propagation and planting of imperiled plants as a natural extension of the recent shift toward gardening with native species and and effort to support the recovery of the species, quite the contrary may be true.

Moving and growing protected plants outside of their native habitat can have a number of conservation implications.

As scientists try to understand more about these species, introducing these plants to sites where they may never have occurred can generate confusion about what’s known about their native range and dispersal patterns. Some of these plants are closely related to other, more common, wild species, or even horticultural varieties, and raising these plants together in landscaped settings increases the risk of their cross-breeding, potentially eliminating the genetic uniqueness of both. Such hybrids may even out-compete the rare parent species.

Biologists working to recover rare species learn about them through careful study of their natural habitats – this can be far more challenging when plants turn up outside their expected habitat, especially if it isn’t clear that the plants were introduced to the location.

Wells also stressed a bigger picture when it comes to protecting rare plants, “Plant conservation is more than ensuring the success of a particular species, but also seeing to it that the plant’s habitat is also protected.”

Imperiled plants seen in the plant trade include the green and mountain sweet pitcher plants; Schweinitz’s sunflower, which is found in the piedmont areas of North and South Carolina; and Gray’s lily, a mountain plant found both in wetlands and at high elevations.

“There are wonderful outlets for people who want to help protect rare plants,” said Wells. “One of the best is supporting efforts to conserve them in their natural habitat – whether through helping land conservancies acquire new land, or helping private and public land managers care for these plants on lands where they already grow.”

Another way to help protect rare plants, continued Wells, is to be certain that any rare plants you’re buying have been obtained legally and that the seller has the proper permits. A permit from the Service is required to sell federally protected plants in interstate commerce. It’s also a crime to remove federally protected plants from another person’s property without their written permission. A list of federally protected plants found in North Carolina can be found at: A permit from the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program is required to move federally and state-protected plants. The list of state-protected plants can be found at: Removing plants from public land also requires permission of the appropriate land management agency.


The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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