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Travellers told not to import plants

Orchids are among the favourite plants taken as holiday souvenirs Keystone

Swiss holidaymakers should resist the temptation to bring home exotic plants to put in their gardens, experts have warned.

This content was published on August 16, 2010 - 21:32

Some plants bring with them the danger of disease and pests or are invasive, squeezing out local greenery. Others are simply forbidden because they are endangered species.

It’s a problem which is well known to Markus Bünter, head of the Plant Protection Inspectorate of the Agroscope research institute, which is attached to the Federal Agriculture Office. His organisation has launched an appeal this summer calling on people to not bring home plants as holiday souvenirs.

“These plants are coming from abroad, which means there are other climate and weather conditions and with that, other organisms in the plants. These can cause a lot of damage in Europe and Switzerland,” Bünter told swissinfo.ch.

Notorious examples in Switzerland include the grape phylloxera which decimated the country’s vines 100 years ago. More recently, fire blight – thought to have come over from North America – is eating away at apple trees mainly in the north of Switzerland.

If banned plants are discovered in a passenger’s luggage when checked at customs – with no documents - they will be destroyed.

Jacques Humbert-Droz, a phytosanitary inspector at Geneva airport, is called in when suspect plants are found.

Cacti and orchids

He mainly sees cases concerning cacti and orchids, often from Thailand.

“Sometimes people are just coming back from their vacation and they have seen a nice orchid and they bring it back. But you can’t do that. You need a phytosanitary certificate to import a plant into Switzerland from a foreign country outside Europe,” he explained.

This means that the plant has been tested for pests and approved for export.

Within Europe, only two plants are banned from coming into Switzerland: the cotoneaster and the photinia Christmas berry, both of which carry the fire blight bacterium.

Some people may not be aware of the restrictions, but others are simply trying to get around them.“The biggest problem is the collectors, they know what they are doing,” Humbert-Droz said.

Humbert-Droz also inspects plants discovered in the post, another avenue for collectors.

Unwelcome guests

Even orchids can bring along unwelcome guests, called thrips, which can move onto orchids growing in Switzerland.

“What’s really up to date is the big bug called the anoplophora chinensis (citrus longhorned beetle), which comes in wood and feels very at home here. It’s coming from the Netherlands,” Humbert-Droz told swissinfo.ch.

“It can live in bonsai trees, for example, and you don’t see it. It can sometimes get out and fly away.” This beetle causes great harm to trees.

Freight is also checked, as fruit and vegetables may bring with them harmful organisms.

Another problem is invasive plants. Bünter points to the goldenrod, once considered ornamental and now a menace, having spread everywhere, even to nature protection areas, where it threatens local flora. Ragwort is another invader.

At Geneva airport, Humbert-Droz says potential trouble can be found in aquarium plants coming from Singapore or Madagascar. “It is not easy to say if they are clean or not and they might also get into open water,” he said.

Endangered species

Some plants may not be imported because they are on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) internationally recognised list of endangered species.

Humbert-Droz says sometimes people don’t realise they are harming the local plant life by picking greenery to take home.

“Under CITES you have 30 days to provide a certificate. If you don’t you will get fined and the plants will go into a botanical garden or state collection in Switzerland if it’s not too late for the plants,” he said.

Both men recommend only leaving footprints when travelling.

“If people really want to take plants from abroad, check beforehand which conditions are needed to import these plants,” Bünter said. At holiday destinations, airports will also have a phytosanitary office that will check flora and issue documents.

In any case, some exotic plants can already be found in nurseries or garden centres in Switzerland, point out the experts.

Agroscope has another recommendation: simply buy a pot as a souvenir on your holidays and put a Swiss plant in it when you get home.

Isobel Leybold-Johnson, swissinfo.ch

Plant imports

From non-EU countries: imports normally require a phytosanitary certificate and sometimes an import licence. The importation of goods packaged in wood is subject to specific regulations.

From EU to non-commercial consignees: if the consignee is non-commercial, no documentation is normally required.

For the scientific purposes as well as for consignments sent to diagnostic laboratories of plants susceptible to contamination by quarantined organisms (or of which the contamination is well-known), an import permit from the federal agriculture office is required.

From the EU to commercial consignees: if regular commerce of multiplication material requiring the plant passport is proposed, registration with the phytosanitary service of the country of origin is required. In the case of an exceptional import, a specific solution must be found in the country of origin.

Material not requiring the plant passport does not need other phytosanitary documents.

Source: Agroscope

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Invasive plants measures

Alien species account for about 10% of Switzerland's flora, and only one in ten of these is considered to be invasive.

There is now an obligation to notify and combat Ambrosia artemisiifolia (also known as ambrosia, ragwort, annual ragweed or short ragweed). The government can reimburse proprietors who suffer losses of crops as a result and - under certain circumstances - also provide compensation for extra expenditure on measures to combat ragwort.

Canton Uri in central Switzerland has announced tougher measures to fight alien species. High on its list: the giant hogweed, whose sap contains poisonous substances, which can cause irritation to humans. Other problems: goldenrod, Himalayan balsam and Japanese knotweed.

In addition, 24 young people have been spending their summer holidays pulling up invasive plants in Winterthur, in a 200m² wooded area.

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