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Garden Centre

Ever sneaked cuttings through customs? Andy Sturgeon’s removal of the mystique surrounding horticultural imports might make your holiday more profitable than you’d imagined.

The holiday season is here and I feel it is my duty to cast the spotlight upon a clandestine activity in the gardening world.

No longer content with slipping illicit cuttings into handbags at Sissinghurst and pillaging the glasshouses of Kew, it’s at this time of year that the great British gardener turns his and her attentions abroad. But I have news to ease the conscience of any plant smugglers out there because you may not have broken the law after all and those special souvenirs sneaked back from your holiday in Madeira or the Canaries may be perfectly legit. That seedling carefully wrapped in damp toilet paper and stowed in your sponge bag could even have been proudly handed to the stewardess for safe stowing in the overhead lockers.

Although there are strict regulations governing the import and export of plants, there are certain concessions for travellers as long as the plants you bring back are for your personal use, free from signs of pests and disease and in your own baggage.

But it seems to be an area of the law that few people are aware of and automatically assume that carting plants around the world must be taboo. And so, armed with this contrary knowledge I take great pleasure in enlightening would be smugglers. It makes me feel like a Catholic priest. A short confessional, a brief imparting of information et voila, the sins are absolved and their conscience is clear.

Now obviously you can't just go collecting wild plants and flowers because apart from harming the environment, many are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Before you make your trip it's advisable to contact MAFF or the nice Customs men at Heathrow may confiscate your new plants and you could end up with a fine.

Generally, if you're on holiday within the EC and countries around the Mediterranean including those in North Africa, you can bring back 5 plants, bulbs, corms and tubers up to 2kg, a small amount of fruit and veg, a bouquet of cut flowers or parts of plants and up to 5 retail packets of seeds. In other words enough to start a small garden. But from the rest of the world it's a bit more strict because you can only bring back the fruit and veg, the bouquet and the seeds.

I think I may have inadvertently broken the law recently when I brought back a rather substantial piece of cactus from Cuba. It wasn't growing wild but in the hotel grounds, in fact I bribed the security guard with a 'T' shirt and 1 US dollar so he'd “look the other way”. Armed with a blunt kitchen knife, having left the secateurs at home, I attempted to hack off a large chunk. Being quite full of holiday spirit I was rather inept so the guard actually came and helped me to speed things up before his boss returned. The following morning, safe in my room, alone apart from the mother of all hangovers I scanned my copy of MAFF regulations to see what I could bring back and then I found the paragraph I was looking for – “cut flowers and any parts of plants forming a bouquet”. And so I lovingly wrapped my large, spiky and rather unusual bouquet in several towels and laid it into the top of my suitcase.

Unfortunately, the long journey in the freezing hold seems to have inflicted a special kind of jet lag on my poor new cactus because many months on he's only just beginning to perk up.

My first horticultural import some years ago was slightly less successful. I discovered a sort of dwarf variety of papyrus growing wild in a remote part of Africa and took it to be rather unique. With visions of giving my name to a new species that would make my fame and fortune, I painstakingly tracked down a plant with ripe seed, which I collected then posted back home to England. Fearful that the seed wouldn't remain viable until I returned, I asked my gardening mother to sow them.

Unfortunately it never happened, I think she was worried that I was importing drugs or something and making her an accessory. So alas, I've never seen the Papyrus sturgeoni again.

MAFF produce a leaflet entitled Travellers!
Plant Health Division
Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
Room 340, Foss House
1-2 Peasholme Green
Kings Pool, York YO1 2PX
Tel: (01904) 455191

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