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Back to My Roots

The ethics of proplifting and plant theft

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With the rise in the popularity of houseplants, a lot of people want to buy plants for their space without breaking the bank — a reasonable request, since, for the average person, they are usually just a hobby or a nice way to decorate. But this increase in demand has caused a lot of people to participate in controversial methods of obtaining houseplants, such as “proplifting” and plant theft. 

Proplifting is the practice (typically reserved for big box stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot) of taking stem or leaf pieces that are already on the floor of plant stores and taking them home to root and grow into plants. Big box stores typically sweep up this debris and throw it away, but local nurseries will often grow more plants for their stock from these pieces.

Proplifting is so popular among houseplant owners there is a subreddit dedicated to it, with 162,000 members. In this forum, members share their proplifted finds, growth progress, and propagating advice.

The key with proplifting is that the cutting or node is already removed from the live plant, so there is no cutting or tearing taking place in order to get the cutting for your propagation. 

I’ve seen numerous videos on TikTok about proplifting ethically, which really benefits the community. However, there’s also a fairly large community of people who think that going into big box stores with scissors or shears is also OK and it’s become a trend on TikTok. A lot of people say “If it’s a chain, it’s free rein” to justify their clippings, but is this an ethical practice? 

Cutting plants and physically damaging them is theft. Some people justify taking cuttings by saying it isn’t stealing because it’s not the entire plant; that it’s a big box store, so they’ll be fine; and that plants are part of nature and should be free. But plants are still a product and piece of merchandise, and buying them or collecting them ethically is really important for the environment. 

If you’re someone who’s involved in your plant community, taking clippings from plants hurts your community because whoever buys that plant now has to wait for a brand new growth point, so you’ve essentially halted growth from that plant. Additionally, it can hurt the business because, depending on the plant, they can’t sell a clipped plant at the original price. 

Sure, maybe the big box store will be fine in the long run, but the normalization of plant theft at big box stores can lead to plant theft at local nurseries.

Recently, Kent East Hill Nursery, a locally owned plant nursery in Kent, had a $300 Philodendron Melanochrysum clipped at its store. In an Instagram post, they wrote, “This is one of the numerous accounts we have found a plant that has been hidden and destroyed in the store … We want to have a large variety of collector plants with fair prices but the stealing has really hurt our business. We cannot sell these plants in such condition because that would be completely unfair to our supportive customers.”

Taking clippings instead of purchasing plants causes local nurseries to either stop selling the desired plants or raise their prices even more to compensate for the theft. 

There are other alternatives to get the desired plant in more ethical ways, such as plant groups and trades. In Seattle, there are at least 10 plant Facebook groups specifically for buying, selling, and trading plants. Within these groups, people offer cuttings of plants for really cheap prices, mostly because the buyer has to root and grow it themselves. A lot of the time people even gift plants to each other to share the love. 

I’ve been gifted cuttings with my purchases — sometimes even without a purchase — multiple times, and it’s such a nice way to give back to people in the community. Sometimes it’s common plants, like pothos or philodendron, but I’ve also been gifted a node cutting of a plant that’s a brand new species in which node cuttings typically go for over $200.

The key is being involved in the community and sharing plants with people. This is a great way to get a Philodendron Melanochrysum leaf cutting for about $30. It’s not free, but it’s an ethical way to get the desired plant. 

People also trade plants. I’ve traded both cuttings and fully rooted plants to add a desired plant into my collection. It was entirely free and both people were happy with the trades. It’s also a great way to meet people and connect over a shared love of plants. 

Within these groups, people also sell cuttings of their plants. This practice shares plants with the community and makes up some of the costs of the plant. People often take the top cutting of the plant and then sell the bottom cutting, with the disclaimer that the top cutting was taken. This typically isn’t an issue, as long as there’s transparency. 

The normalization of stealing plants can damage the community and make it difficult for everyone to get the plants they want, especially if it’s harming a local nursery or small business. Instead, try to practice ethical proplifting of plants already on the ground or detached from the plant, or participate in your local plant community to initiate trades to widen your collection.

Reach Health & Wellness Editor Iseabel Nance at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @iseabel

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