Green Scene

Going abroad? Avoid bringing back unintended souvenirs.

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, April 17, 2010

If you're a gardener and planning a vacation out of the United States, be aware of what your travels can deliver. You might be bringing home more than you bargained for.

Carelessly imported plant materials could become a problem because they -- or the soil attached to them -- can harbor pests or diseases. In their native habitat these insects or pathogens might not be problematic, but when transported to another environment, they can thrive.

According to Bill Aley, a senior import specialist from the United States Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, there are two categories of plant materials that are of concern: Plants intended for cultivation and those intended for consumption. Those for cultivation include flora with roots, seeds, bulbs, cuttings and tissue cultures. Edibles include fresh fruit, dried fruit and leaves for tea.

The goal of APHIS is to keep invasive insects and plant diseases that could ravage the environment out of this country. Weed seeds, insect eggs, nematodes, fungi, bacteria or viruses can also be harbored in imported soil. It's okay to bring back up to a dozen specimens from a trip abroad for planting, but for 13 items or more, you need to get an import permit.

For entry into this country, many foreign plant materials must be inspected and certified as safe. But this doesn't mean you can't buy a bag of bulbs at the airport in Amsterdam or take a tiny cutting from a camellia in southern England.

The animal and plant inspection service assesses the risk of plants coming into the country on the basis of country of origin. About 167 countries have determined what plant risks they want to keep out, and they all share information to facilitate and monitor shipment of plant materials.

Most plant material is normally examined by plant inspection services of exporting countries. If free of pests and diseases, it receives a clearance called a phyto-sanitary certification. In addition, there are pre-certification programs in which U.S. government employees overseas examine plant materials and determine if they're suitable for export.

It's highly likely that the bulbs you buy are pre-cleared and certified, but to be sure, you might want to look for this information on the package. Any plant material collection of 13 or more pieces that isn't pre-cleared could be confiscated and sent to one of a dozen or more inspection stations to be checked and cleared.

"Most plant material is enterable," Aley said, in three cases:

-- If there's no reason to keep it out;

-- If there is a reason to keep it out, but it has been identified with a phyto-sanitary certificate as being free of the possible disease or pest;

-- If it is part of a bulk shipment from shippers who have "Q37" permits, named for the government regulation allowing them to bring such things into the United States.

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