It’s not unusual for devoted gardeners to share favorite plants and seeds with each other, even across international borders. When doing so, it’s extremely important that these items don’t harbor pests or diseases that could harm other plants or the environment. While the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Export Services staff mainly deals with commercial shipments, occasionally, we assist amateur gardeners with exchanging items internationally.
Last month I had the wonderful opportunity to help a noted Washington, D.C. couple, who are avid gardeners, take a special gift to their hosts across the Atlantic Ocean. During their May visit to the United Kingdom, President and Mrs. Obama presented Prince Charles of Wales and his wife Camilla, with a selection of 34 different types of plants and seeds from the gardens of Mount Vernon, Monticello and the White House.
The Obamas gave a very personal gift with meaningful historic and contemporary touches that appealed to the Prince’s hobby as an enthusiastic gardener. Seeds included favorites from the White House gardens, such as Cheddar Cauliflower and Monticello heritage vegetables, like Texas bird pepper. Plantings ranged from English boxwood to American holly.
The Prince enjoys gardening and is equally concerned about the negative impacts of invasive species and diseases on his island nation. There was no question President Obama’s gift would require strict adherence to the United Kingdoms’ plant import requirements, and it was my job to insure that happened. I compared the proposed list, sent from the State Department, to the European Union’s (EU) import requirements. One example of the many requirements was that any deciduous plant can only enter the EU during a dormant state, eliminating an American pecan. I inspected the plants, greenhouses, and hardening areas for White House plants to assure they met all of the EU’s standards. To comply with EU soil rules, I had to clean some plants, including roots, and place them in a peat-less media.
My colleague, Russell Duncan, in APHIS’ International Services program facilitated communication with the United Kingdom Food and Environment Research Agency, and identified the point of entry and inspector who would examine the gift when it arrived in the United Kingdom. Like most live plant shipments, this cargo was very perishable and smooth transport was vital. Even the beautiful wooden container used to present the gift required authorization because it was made of historic magnolia that included tree bark accents. Products with bark demand strictest scrutiny because they can carry pests.
This opportunity allowed me to recall the skills I used daily when I began as an Authorized Certification Official (ACO) about 10 years ago. Today, I normally work with my fellow Export Services staff to facilitate the work of approximately 3,000 Federal, State and County inspectors who certify more than half-a-million export certificates each year. The phytosanitary certificates APHIS supplies to exporters, states that the items are free of pests and diseases, which can ease entry of plants and plant products into other countries.
I was happy to find out the phytosanitary certificate, with an astonishing 19 additional declarations, eased the customs clearance of President and Mrs. Obama’s gift to the Prince of Wales. I was honored to facilitate the export of this White House gift, knowing they would soon be growing in a palace garden.