China might not want much of our recycled material, but its growing middle class sure has a hankering for our Dudleya succulents.

The familiar spiny marine cactus grow along the Southern Oregon and Northern California coasts and are often used in plant arrangements. But poachers have been removing them by the thousands and selling them in China, where they’re going for $40 to $50 a plant.

According to a press release from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) two Korean men and another from China were arrested this week in Humboldt County recently in a third heist in that county. They had planned to steal thousands of plants and sell them back home, according to the press release.

The plant has pale green leaves but the tips and outer leaves are often burgundy.

There have been no reports of similar activity in Curry County, where the little succulent also thrives in the craggy seastacks.

The Dudleya genus has about 45 species in North America; among the common ones along Oregon’s coast are bluff lettuce or sea lettuce. In Oregon, it is not listed as an endangered, threatened or sensitive species, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

The first clue ...

An anonymous caller in Mendocino, California, reported “suspicious activity” going on in a post office there earlier this month, where he said a man was holding up the line by shipping 60 packages overseas. When he asked the man what he was shipping, the man allegedly said “something very valuable” and pointed toward the ocean.

U.S. Customs officials followed up on the tip and confiscated dozens of boxes of the succulent.

The state Fish and Wildlife office received another tip and sent wildlife officer Patrick Freeling to Point Arena — where he caught the same man with dozens of Dudleyas in his backpack. The man was identified through post office security video footage.

Later, Freeling found a van loaded with boxes parked along Highway 1. He was reported to have first thought the boxes contained abalone, but again found hundreds of the illegally taken succulents.

Arrested were Koreans Taehun Kim, 52, and Taeyun Kim, 46; and Liu Fengxia, 37, of China. Officials raided the mens’ cabin in Trinidad and found thousands more succulents.

According to California fish and wildlife officials, it was then they realized the crime might have international implications.

They later learned the three men had flown to San Francisco, rented a van and drove up the coast looking for the succulents. When they found a significant number, they’d illegally harvest them and ship them off.

“There are many implications with the destruction of this coastal land, including a massive hit to the coastline’s ecosystem,” Freeling said. “Officials were able to replant some of the recovered plants, but it’s still unknown how many have been shipped to Asia.”

About 20 volunteers spent days replanting the succulents in the ocean rocks; law enforcement kept about 10 as evidence.

Getting caught might not prove enough of a deterrent, either, as the first of three cases that has gone through the courts netted the perpetrator a $5,000 fine.

CDFW environmental scientist Michael van Hattem was reported in a CDFW press release that Dudleya are designated a “sensitive species,” dependent on a specific habitat. If a large poaching operation were successful, he said, the ecosystem would be irreversibly damaged.

Reach Jane Stebbins at jstebbins@currypilot.com .

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