Skilled gardeners know the best way to avoid spending a fortune on plants is to simply propagate new plants from seeds, roots, cuttings, and discarded or damaged plant matter. While there’s typically nothing wrong with propagating your own plants or accepting propagation materials from friends, family members, and neighbors, taking plant parts without permission, sometimes called “proplifting,” is often against the law. Here’s how to propagate plants you don’t know without committing a crime.
What is Proplifting?
While it sounds like “proplifting” would involve shoplifting plant matter, the actual act refers to taking discarded pieces of plants and using them to grow new plants. For example, taking a broken leaf from a succulent home and caring for it until it develops roots. Redditor Sarina Daniels is frequently credited with coining the term, which she used to establish a popular subreddit.
Is Proplifting Illegal?
Yes, and no. Ultimately, it depends on what state you live in and how the plant matter is taken. Although most “proplifters” go out of their way to ask before taking plant matter, some people take cuttings from plants without the owner’s consent, which is against the law.
Just as it would be against the law to enter someone’s backyard and rip a shrub out by the roots, removing pieces from plants in public without the owner’s consent is illegal. Fallen plant matter is more of a legal gray area as its legality depends on the location.
For the most part, the best option for would-be propagators is to ask the owner of the plant or property for a cutting. Many stores don’t mind as long as the plant naturally sheds the cutting, and some homeowners may even help you take a cutting from their plant in a manner that will not damage the plant’s health or appearance.
Can You Take Cuttings from Plant Stores?
Not unless you ask first. Some stores may allow shoppers to take cuttings of already damaged plants, but if you take cuttings off of a live plant in a store without first getting permission, you are breaking the law. Taking cuttings from a store is considered both vandalism and theft because it harms the plant, makes it less valuable, and takes merchandise from the store itself.
What Charges Can You Face for Proplifting from Stores?
Most shops will just kick proplifters out and threaten to call the police for trespassing if the offender returns. But if the police are called to handle the theft, the proplifter could be criminally charged with theft and vandalism. Because most plant clippings aren’t particularly valuable, those caught taking plant matter from stores will only face misdemeanor charges. In California, vandalism is always a misdemeanor unless the damage will cost over $400 to repair or replace, and theft is always a misdemeanor when less than $950 of property has been stolen. In many cases, these charges are even filed as infractions punishable by no more than a fine.
If someone takes clippings from valuable plants, these charges could become felonies. It’s rare for this to happen at big box stores, like Home Depot and Lowes, unless the suspect has stolen dozens of clippings, but at specialty nurseries with pricey exotic houseplants, plant theft can quickly result in felony vandalism and grand theft charges.
As an example, a woman in Oregon was charged with theft and vandalism after proplifting over $2,000 worth of rare plants from a nursery specializing in rare plants.
Can You Take Fallen Plant Pieces From a Store?
You can if you get permission from an employee first. But remember that stores are in business to make money, so many don’t want to let people have clippings that could grow into the very plants they are selling. Additionally, some plants are protected by patents and can’t legally be propagated, so stores may hesitate to let people take leaves and stems home, knowing they intend to grow them illegally.
If you take broken pieces from plants at a store without consent, you could be charged with theft, but unlike those who take plant clippings, you won’t be charged with vandalism. If you return to a store to take discarded plant parts after being asked to leave, you could also face trespassing charges.
Because many of these stores throw away unsold plants, some people skip picking up fallen stems and leaves and instead take discarded whole plants from the dumpsters. If the dumpster is locked up or otherwise off limits to the public, dumpster diving must involve trespassing. Beyond that, dumpster diving in California falls under a legal gray area. Under the 1988 state Supreme Court ruling of California Vs. Greenwood, trash placed out on the curb is no longer considered the property of the prior owner; however, scavenging laws prohibit taking refuse or recyclable materials from the garbage. Whether or not taking these plants from a dumpster would be considered theft is up for debate.
Taking Plants From Private Yards
If you take plant cuttings from someone’s yard without their consent, you could be charged with damaging plants, trespassing, and theft. Taking fallen plant matter, including seed pods or fruit, from a private yard is ok, as long as you do not trespass by entering their property without consent.
Taking Plant Matter From Public Areas
It’s similarly against the law to take plant parts from public parks and public spaces under Penal Code 384a (PC), however, you typically won’t face trespassing theft charges in these cases.
Can You Take Clippings from Nature Reserves or Botanical Gardens?
No. While these exhibits are adored by plant lovers, many of whom want to bring the beauty they see into their own homes, taking clippings is against the law as it damages the plants —sometimes irreparably. If you love a rare piece of flora spotted at a park or garden, contact a ranger, docent, or gardener who works there to find out if they ever offer clippings or sell plants from the collection.
Note that the San Diego Zoo is one of the largest botanical gardens in our region. Even if their primary focus is on their animal collection, taking clippings from any of the 3,100 plant species at the zoo can result in your being banned from the park. Returning after being banned can open you up to trespassing charges.
Not all Plants Can Leally be Propagated
Aside from the fact that some plants cannot be propagated due to patent issues, some plants cannot be grown or imported into California or the US. Our state is particularly wary of the importation of fruits and vegetables due to our massively profitable agricultural industry, which could easily be devastated by an imported pathogen.
If you have any questions about whether or not it is illegal to take a leaf, cutting, seedpod, or other botanical matter to grow your own plants at home, please call a criminal defense attorney like Peter M. Liss. You can schedule a free initial consultation by calling (760) 643-4050.