Plant Heist Image

Plant Heist

By Brian Shaer | March 16, 2021

SXSW FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! You’ve heard of an art heist, like the one in The Thomas Crown Affair. You’ve heard of a casino heist, such as in Ocean’s Eleven. You may have even heard of a hurricane heist, like in, wait for it, The Hurricane Heist. But have you heard of a plant heist? Doubtful. Yet, for a brief moment, there was an enormous underground market for the Dudleya Farinosa plant. This strange period in time is chronicled in the short documentary Plant Heist.

Dudleya Farinosa plants are a lovely species of wild succulent that grows on the bluffs of the Northern California coast. While it doesn’t seem that these unique plants on the verge of extinction, they are nonetheless rare and protected. Thus stealing them from their rightful homes, an activity that amounts to kidnapping, as several of the film’s interviewees indicate, is illegal. However, that doesn’t stop greedy poachers from filling backpacks with the valuable vegetation in the dead of night in order to sell on the black market, mostly in South Korea and China.

The motive of this furtive flora filching is, of course, money. Dudleya Farinosas can fetch upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars on the black market. That provides more than enough incentive for brazen traffickers to risk capture and prosecution for their crimes. And that’s exactly what the California Department of Fish & Wildlife intends to do with anyone that is caught kidnapping the plants. Californians view their prized plants as defenseless children to be protected.

“…greedy poachers…[fill] backpacks with the valuable vegetation…to sell on the black market…”

Plant Heist is a good fit for a short subject documentary. It is just the right length and covers just the right amount of material to spark interest in the underground commercial succulent trade without needing to add any extraneous padding to fill out a feature-length runtime, which would have been a fatal mistake. As it is, we are introduced to the subject, given the perspectives and explanation of a few notable authorities on the front lines of the matter, hear from one or two civilian witnesses to the crime, leaving just enough time for some thoughts from an attorney prosecuting the criminals. This is not some wild and wacky story with multiple loony characters to sift through.

Most of the mountainous footage looks generic, and, indeed, I was not surprised to notice stock footage company Shutterstock mentioned in the closing credits. However, co-directors Chelsi de Cuba and Gabriel de Cuba include a scene of night surveillance of the criminal activity in action that invaluably illustrates the plant heist, something that up until then we had only heard described by the interviewees.

I wouldn’t necessarily refer to Plant Heist as an entertaining film. Rather it is an enlightening documentary on a subject that I can’t imagine many viewers will have realized is a thing. It’ll certainly give an individual a momentary pause during their next shopping trip for houseplants at Home Depot.

Plant Heist screened at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.

Plant Heist (2021)

Directed: Chelsi de Cuba, Gabriel de Cuba


Starring: Patrick Foy, Patrick Freeling, Dan Gluesenkamp, Lisa Krieger, Jade Davis, Emily Hickok, Stephen McCabe, Brett Hall, etc.

Movie score: 8/10

Plant Heist Image

"…just the right length and covers just the right amount of material..."

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