Succulent savior

Researcher Stephen McCabe is at the forefront of efforts to save a charismatic and rare plant from the hands of poachers—and possible extinction

Stephen McCabe surveying dudleya sites following the Springs Fire. Photo by Mark Elvin/USFWS
Verity’s dudleyas are hanging on, quite literally, by mere threads. Nearly wiped out by intense wildfires, these charismatic mini-flora, and others like them, now face a new threat from poachers engaged in a lucrative and illegal succulent trade. Photo by Ashley McConnell/USFWS 

Stephen McCabe scrambled up the crumbling cliff in Ventura County, hoping the volcanic rock would hold and his instincts would prove him right.

An experienced climber and a researcher with UC Santa Cruz’s Environmental Studies Department, McCabe was part of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project to ensure the survival of the rare silvery-green succulent, Verity’s Dudleya, which had been nearly wiped out by the 2013 Springs Fire and then hit by alleged poachers a while later.

Sure enough, McCabe, who is also emeritus director of research at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden, found a subpopulation of Verity’s Dudleya on the cliff face, marking a small victory in the fight to preserve this federally protected plant.

But it’s not just Verity’s Dudleya that’s in trouble. Many species of Dudleya are being endangered, not only by climate change and but also by bands of poachers who have stolen thousands of the these plants. A single mature Dudleya currently can cost up to $50 on the black market in China and South Korea, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The ‘panda bear of plants’

Not only is McCabe considered an expert on the Dudleya, which is the panda bear of plants—cute, charismatic, and rare—but he also is at the forefront of efforts to save the succulent. He consults with state and federal agencies, has helped safely replant some of the wild Dudleya stolen by poachers, and has collected thousands of seeds from the threatened plants. Some of the seeds, like those from Ventura County, have been placed in seed banks to preserve them in case of extinction. But others from different species have been cultivated by McCabe, who harvests seeds from those plants, and then gives them away to nurseries and organizations in hopes of smothering the succulent smuggling trade.

Last year, for instance, McCabe donated tens of thousands of seeds to the California Native Plant Society, which is planning a huge Dudleya plant giveaway this fall in an effort to not only raise awareness of succulent poachers and responsible sourcing but also to flood the market and drive down prices.

Says McCabe with a quick grin: “We want to make them (Dudleya) cheap and boring.”

An energetic 65-year-old with a mane of collar-length hair stuffed under a Patagonia ball cap, McCabe is a man on a mission.

He became fascinated with succulents at the age of 11, got twin degrees from UC Santa Cruz (Cowell ’77, environmental studies and psychology, and Crown ’82, biology), and decided to study the then-obscure Dudleya while at graduate school at San Francisco State University.

"They are a fascinating plant group,” McCabe says. “Not only are there a great number of rare and endangered species but there is a lot going on with their evolution. They haven’t stopped evolving. You can go into a population and, in some cases, find incipient species that, if left alone, might become a new species thousands of years from now.”

Which makes them not only a worthy specimen for study but also makes them hard to classify—although McCabe has been known to be able to look at a photo and determine within 100 yards where the Dudleya is growing.

A trendy obsession

Popularly called liveforevers—in the late 1800s, a Scottish explorer discovered, to his surprise, that the plants he’d pressed between the pages of his field book in the Americas had somehow survived the long ocean voyage back to Britain—the plants are hardy but rare.

Found mostly on the West Coast from the southern Oregon border to the tip of Baja California, there are 68 species and subspecies in the genus Dudleya, according to McCabe. Of those, 39 are considered rare and/or endangered.

“They’re extremely tenacious in the right spots,” McCabe says. “You can see them hanging by a single root. The cliff may have fallen away but they have one root hanging on, and they’re still making it. You look at them and think, there is no way they can be alive, but they will somehow pull out one more season of flowering and seeds.”

Still, drought and fire have taken a toll—the Springs Fire, for instance, wiped out 95–99 percent of all known Verity’s Dudleya, according to Mark Elvin, a botanist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura County—and the popularity of Dudleyas in places like China and South Korea have put more pressure on them. In those countries, according to news reports, the plants’ resemblance to a lotus blossom and its ability to grow in small gardens and apartments have made them a trendy obsession.

Thousands of poached plants have been recovered by California and federal authorities in recent years. According to the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office, in 2019, a couple was convicted of stealing Dudleya farinosa plants from Big Sur and was fined $24,000 and handed jail sentences. Some 600 plants destined for China were reportedly found in their home.

About 100 of the poached plants were replanted in Big Sur by McCabe, UC Santa Cruz California Native Plant Program Director Brett Hall, UC Santa Cruz students, and state parks employees. But that’s not the solution for every poaching case. According to McCabe, smugglers will often mix species from different areas and put them in soil taken from another location so there is a real threat that, if replanted in the wild, bugs, fungus and/or bacteria could be introduced and not only wipe out the replanted Dudleya but also the wild populations there.

Thus, McCabe’s effort to collect seeds and cultivate Dudleya plants, which, in the wild, are a critical part of ecosystems.

“Right now, Steve is just maintaining the plants (Verity’s Dudleya) so we have as many individuals as possible so if the plant dies in the wild, we have the genetic material,” says botanist Elvin of the Ventura County conservation project. He noted that McCabe was hired for the job because of his deep knowledge of Dudleya and his horticulture skills.

Fighting off extinction

The fight to save Dudleya, Elvin says, is similar to the way California condors were brought back from the edge of extinction starting in 1982. That year, the remaining wild population of 23 condors was put into a captive breeding program, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and then released into the wild starting in 1992. Although the California condor is still endangered, there are now hundreds living in the wild or in captivity.

“We’re not quite at the point of putting Verity’s Dudleya back into the wild,” Elvin says. But it’s a possibility in the future.

For now, McCabe and UC Santa Cruz are at the forefront of efforts to save the enigmatic Dudleya from extinction with its program of seed banking and cultivation.

“It’s important for the world to see there is value in what is going on at the university, and specifically at the Arboretum,” McCabe says. “This is real-world conservation, where there can be a positive ending to the story” about another group of plants on Earth facing extinction.