Can I bring plants into California? Yes, but know the rules

Declare any plant matter at the border of California or face the consequences.
(Greg Clarke)

You’ve just seen the most darling little aloe vera in a shop in Mexico or South Africa. How great would that look on your patio? Too great to pass up. Plus it’s a bargain. It’s your lucky day.

Don’t buy that lottery ticket just yet. Bringing plants or plant matter into the U.S. is, like the lottery, not a sure thing, and the return on your investment may end up being a big, fat zero.

That’s because “plants for planting” may harbor pests that can wreak havoc on ecosystems, and they are, in polite language, unwelcome.


“If you have an insect that’s been living somewhere else … over millenniums, they’ve had a chance to ‘sort things out’ and [develop] defenses,” said Kel Wieder, professor at Villanova University’s Center for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Stewardship in Pennsylvania. “Insects or fungi don’t cause much of a problem because of evolution” in their native land.

But, he said, “When one of these pathogens comes to the United States and encounters new species that have never seen it before, the plant may have no defense against that pathogen.

“Then really bad things can happen.”

“Really bad things” include the fungus that killed 4 million chestnut trees in the early 1900s and the reviled vine mealybug, which causes double damage by sucking the sap out of grapes and producing a substance called honey dew that allows mold to grow on vines, Wieder said.

Big deal, you say. Wrong. It’s not a big deal. It’s a huge deal. Especially when you consider that agriculture and related industries in the United States added $1.05 trillion to the U.S. economy in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about $133 billion of that from farms. In 2018, California generated about $50 billion from agriculture.

If guilt isn’t enough, you also could face fines.

But there is a way to bring home plants that involves no sneaking and no deception, and you will all live happily ever after.

Which is not to say it’s uncomplicated. First, you must declare whatever it is when you enter the country. If you’re bringing in 12 or fewer plants, you do not need a permit if they are generally admissible plants, said Ken Kitchell, an agriculturist with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service‘s Plant Protection and Quarantine program. We’ll tell you how to find that out below.

But you will need what’s called a “phytosanitary certificate issued by the country of origin,” Kitchell said. “It’s basically an official document that [says] someone of authority and scientific background has looked at the material and found it to be free of pests or pathogens.”

The certificate must have a seal or stamp of the official or country; it must be numbered; it must have an original, not copied, signature; and it must have the plant’s genus and species.

The plant must not be planted in soil. That is, it must be bare-root, although, Kitchell said, you could put sphagnum moss around it and wrap it in newspaper to keep it moist.


It will be inspected and, assuming it shows no signs of pest or disease (and is an admissible plant), you both are free to go.

You can save yourself some trouble if you’re willing to do a little research beforehand in the agency’s 1,400-page “Plants for PlantingManual.

Before you spit that coffee across the room, if you know the genus of the plant, you can do a Control F on your keyboard and enter the genus (which you have Googled). If we’re looking for that aloe vera at the top of the story, we know that its scientific name is (thankfully) aloe vera. You’ll find there are several types of aloe that are not allowed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, but aloe vera is not among them.

Assuming you have met all the requirements, that aloe vera is headed home.

That, alas, is a pretty easy example (and it took me quite some time to find one). There are myriad other ways you can stumble trying to bring in, say, a plant that turns out to be an endangered plant you didn’t know was endangered.

Or perhaps you’ve found something that looks like you’d use it in stir-fry, and it turns out to be classified as a federal noxious weed. We’re talking about you, Chinese water spinach or Ipomoea aquatica, if we’re being formal, and you are not allowed entrance into the U.S.

If you’re concerned about your potential plant purchase and want to head off problems, call APHIS at (301) 851-2046 or toll-free at (877) 770-5990.

That sounds like a hassle, but for those who are passionate about plants, no trouble is too much.

You can save yourself trouble by buying in the United States. Houseplants are allowed into California if they are indoor plants, pest-free, ornamental and not for resale, and they’re potted in potting mix or other “clean” medium, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

As you would returning to the U.S., when you enter California, you must declare your plants.


If it’s citrus of any kind, say goodbye; they’re not allowed into California. California also would like it a lot if you did not bring in pine, oak, fruit and nut trees. If you do, you’ll need to read the federal and state plant quarantine manuals. (There’s some scintillating bedtime reading.)

Whatever you do, follow the rules. There’s too much at stake. And if you happen to run into the person who introduced the glassy-winged sharpshooter into California in the ’80s or ’90s, I’d like to have a word or two with him or her, including, “Take this shovel and shove it … into the dirt from which nothing now grows. The least you can do is help me replant.”

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