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A new study suggests that it's surprisingly easy to get your hands on an endangered plant. And some activists are now going it alone, trying to save rare species from extinction. But conservation experts worry there are potential risks when private groups start moving their favorite plants to new places.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) On your own, Torreya taxifolia...

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: This is a chant that a woman named Connie Barlow wrote for a special day a couple of years ago, when she and some friends planted some tree seedlings, Torreya taxifolia, also known as Stinking Cedar.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Welcome home.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The home in question was not Florida, where fewer than a thousand of these endangered trees grow wild along one stretch of river, with their numbers dwindling. Instead, Barlow planted the trees on some private land in North Carolina, outside of its native range. Barlow is a writer and naturalist who says she felt an affinity to this ancient species.

Ms. CONNIE BARLOW (Founder, Torreya Guardians): I have a mystical side to me, where I spent time communing with the plant and try to get a sense of what it wanted.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She felt it wanted to leave Florida and migrate northward, where it might be more likely to survive climate change.

Ms. BARLOW: I said, I can do it for zero money, working with fellow volunteers, and we can legally give this plant a chance.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Her group was able to get their hands on privately owned plants and move them because federal laws treat endangered plants very differently than endangered animals. You can't, say, legally buy an endangered gray wolf and release it in your backyard, but plants are a different story.

Mr. PATRICK SHIREY (Department of Biological Sciences, University of Notre Dame): It dates back to a very old tradition of how we treat species.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Patrick Shirey does conservation research at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He also has a law degree.

Mr. SHIREY: Under common law, the person that owned the land owned the plants that were on the land, whereas the king owned the animals under English law.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says under federal law, endangered plants on your land are your property. You can give those plants to anyone as a gift. You can even sell them inside your state. And it is legal for someone to drive to a nursery, purchase an endangered plant and then drive it out of state.

Mr. SHIREY: You could drive to South Carolina and bring a plant up to Maryland, and you would not be violating federal law.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's not hard to find someone who wants to sell you a rare plant. Shirey and a colleague recently did a search on the Internet, looking for all 753 plants listed as threatened or endangered.

Mr. SHIREY: And searching phrases like seeds for sale and plants for sale.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They found that about 10 percent of these species were being advertised online, according to a report in the journal Nature.

Mr. SHIREY: There's been a lot of attention to the trade of endangered animals. There's been less attention to the trade of endangered plants.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Shirey says these plants deserve more attention because all this trade could create real ecological problems. Moving plants to different habitats could spread plant diseases, or some plants could adapt to their new home too well and become invasive weeds.

But with climate change looming as a possible new threat. Some experts worry that concerned citizens will be more and more tempted to save a beloved species by transplanting it to someplace more hospitable. That worries Mark Schwartz. He's a plant ecologist at the University of California, Davis.

Mr. MARK SCHWARTZ (Plant Ecologist, University of California, Davis): It takes a lot of thought and probably some science to understand the risks there. And volunteers generally aren't going through that assessment process. They're going out and doing things.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Still, Schwartz understands why they want to do something. He says far more money is spent on helping cute and fuzzy endangered animals than plants.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: The Endangered Species Act is rather anemic with respect to accomplishing the job of protecting plants. It encourages people to take this job onto their own shoulders. And so there is a tension there.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says private citizens can help native plants by pulling weeds or conserving their land. But when it comes to resettling a plant in a new area, Schwartz urges caution and says conservation groups need to come up with guidelines to help keep plant lovers from making big mistakes.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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