The Values and Ethics of Plant Propagation

A neighbor of mine got his question published in Randy Cohen’s weekly column, The Ethicist, in Sunday’s New York Times:

“I’m told it is illegal to propagate and sell this tree because the National Geographic Society (NGS) has exclusive rights to it in the United States, but would I be unethical to do so?”
Pine Away, The Ethicist, NY Times, April 20, 2008

The tree in question, Wollemia nobilis, the Wollemi™ Pine (and note the trademark), is critically endangered in the wild:

The pine was known solely from fossil records and presumed extinct until it was discovered in 1994 in the Wollemi National Park, just outside Sydney, Australia. Dubbed the botanical find of the century, the Wollemi pine is now the focus of extensive research to conserve this ancient species.

Fewer than 100 mature trees are known exist, growing in small groves on moist ledges in a deep rainforest gorge surrounded by rugged mountains and undisturbed forest.
Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis) at Brooklyn Botanic Garden

The trademarked name situation arises – ironically, to my mind – from efforts to protect and conserve the species:

Through National Geographic’s licensing partnership with Floragem, a portion of the sales will go directly to Wollemi Pine International Pty. Ltd., whose mission is to conserve the Wollemi Pine for future generations and to raise awareness of conservation internationally. Through public participation, Wollemi Pine International will repopulate the Wollemi Pine and return royalties to fund conservation of these trees and other threatened and endangered species.
Press Release, National Geographic Society, September 19, 2006

The Ethicist, Randy Cohen, responded:

Liz Nickless, a spokeswoman for the society, says that “there are no exclusive agreements for the distribution of the Wollemi pine.” There is a U.S. trademark, she adds, “so anyone wanting to use the name will need permission.” That is, you may become a Johnny Wollemi Seed, disseminating this fine fir under its scientific name, Wollemia nobilis, or for that matter as Sexy Slender Tree or Pinetacular, but not (without consent) as a Wollemi Pine.

While trademarks govern the use of the name, plant patents proscribe unlicensed propagation:

A plant patent is granted by the Government to an inventor (or the inventor’s heirs or assigns) who has invented or discovered and asexually reproduced a distinct and new variety of plant, other than a tuber propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state. The grant, which lasts for 20 years from the date of filing the application, protects the inventor’s right to exclude others from asexually reproducing, selling, or using the plant so reproduced.
[emphasis added]- What is a plant patent?, Overview of Plant Patents, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

This example comes from the U.S. Patent Office; similar laws and regulations govern in other countries.

More and more of the varieties I see available for sale are labelled “PPAF” (Plant Patent Applied For) or “PP #XXXXXX”, the plant patent number. So what happens when I need to divide my patented perennial?

Asexual reproduction is the propagation of a plant to multiply the plant without the use of genetic seeds to assure an exact genetic copy of the plant being reproduced. … asexual reproduction would include but may not be limited to:

  • Rooting Cuttings
  • Grafting and Budding
  • Apomictic Seeds
  • Bulbs
  • Division
  • Slips
  • Layering
  • Rhizomes
  • Runners
  • Corms
  • Tissue Culture
  • Nucellar Embryos

Asexual reproduction, Overview of Plant Patents

When I divide my patented perennial – or god forbid, share it with a neighbor – I’m breaking the law. I could choose to disregard it, or I could choose not to support this system and boycott patented plants altogether.

That F1 hybrid vegetable is a manufactured product and won’t come true from seed; its selection and use maintains a dependency on its manufacture and distribution. An open-pollinated heirloom variety can be propagated indefinitely, and shared with others;, a model for sustainable gardening.

As gardeners, the choices we make affect our world, however indirectly. With some reflection, we can reduce the risk of unintended consequences in conflict with out intents. We can choose gardening practices to express our values through action.


Press Release, National Geographic Society, September 19, 2006
The Wollemi Pine Conservation Club
Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis) at Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Overview of Plant Patents, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Name that Plant – The Misuse of Trademarks in Horticulture, Tony Avent, Plant Delights Nursery, 2007.12.25 [Added 2008.05.31]

News: IUCN Releases 2007 Red List of Endangered Species

Blog Widow John has a hard time watching any nature shows. We go “awwww” for the first 45 minutes at cute furry, feathery, scaly critters. Then they bring you down with “But time is running out …”

I hope he doesn’t read this.

Gland, Switzerland, 12 September, 2007, World Conservation Union (IUCN) – Life on Earth is disappearing fast and will continue to do so unless urgent action is taken, according to the 2007 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
– IUCN Press Release, September 12: Extinction Crisis Escalates

One in four mammals, one in eight birds, one third of all amphibians and 70% of the world’s assessed plants on the 2007 IUCN Red List are in jeopardy.

There are now 41,415 species on the IUCN Red List and 16,306 of them are threatened with extinction, up from 16,118 last year. The total number of extinct species has reached 785 and a further 65 are only found in captivity or in cultivation.

o The number of threatened species is increasing across almost all the major taxonomic groups.
o Most threatened birds, mammals and amphibians are located on the tropical continents – the regions that contain the tropical broadleaf forests which are believed to harbour the majority of the Earth’s terrestrial and freshwater species.
o Of the countries assessed, Australia, Brazil, China and Mexico hold particularly large numbers of threatened species.
o Estimates vary greatly, but current extinction rates are at least 100-1,000 times higher than natural background rates.
o The vast majority of extinctions since 1500 AD have occurred on oceanic islands, but over the last 20 years, continental extinctions have become as common as island extinctions.

There are now 12,043 plants on the IUCN Red List, with 8,447 listed as threatened. The Woolly-stalked Begonia (Begonia eiromischa) is the only species to have been declared extinct this year. This Malaysian herb is only known from collections made in 1886 and 1898 on Penang Island. Extensive searches of nearby forests have failed to reveal any specimens in the last 100 years.

The Wild Apricot (Armeniaca vulgaris), from central Asia, has been assessed and added to the IUCN Red List for the first time, classified as Endangered. The species is a direct ancestor of plants that are widely cultivated in many countries around the world, but its population is dwindling as it loses habitat to tourist developments and is exploited for wood, food and genetic material.


IUCN 2007 Red List Home Page
Fact Sheet