Importing and exporting plants

Plant health is increasingly under threat. Climate change and human activities have altered ecosystems, reducing biodiversity and creating new niches where pests and diseases can thrive. At the same time, international travel and trade has tripled in volume in the last decade and can quickly spread pests and diseases around the world causing great damage to horticulture, crops and the environment. There are statutory controls on importing plants and plant products into the UK to safeguard plant health.

Citrus can't be brought back from the Canary Islands, Norway and Turkey, for example, without official approval. Credit: RHS/Advisory

Quick facts

  • Importing plants poses potential risks of introducing new pests and diseases
  • There are restrictions on importing plants into the UK, though many plants can be moved within the EU without official documentation if they are for personal use. There are additional restrictions on material imported from outside the EU.
  • Rules on exporting plants vary by type of material and where they are being sent
  • If in doubt, contact the Animal and Plant Health Agency

Brexit

Although the UK has left the EU, there is now a transition period until the end of 2020 while the UK and EU negotiate future arrangements.

The current rules on trade, travel, and business for the UK and EU will continue to apply during the transition period. New rules will take effect on 1 January 2021.

Bringing plants to the UK from abroad

Though the law allows for import of plants by private individuals as detailed below, it is important to remember that imported plants and plant products are the main pathway of entry for invasive pests and diseases. Plants for planting such as pot plants, cuttings and bulbs are the highest risk.

The RHS advises not to bring back plants or plant products from other countries in your baggage. Defra’s “Don’t Risk It!” campaign explains more about the risks of bringing in plant material via passenger baggage or other non-commercial routes.

The UK is free of many pests and diseases present in other parts of Europe and beyond. The UK has “protected zone status”, which means it can apply additional measures to the import of plants from the EU for a wide range of species.

Even plant material that appears healthy may be harbouring pests and diseases. For example, some hosts of Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterial pathogen causing devastating outbreaks in Europe, may not show symptoms for months or even years following infection. More information on Xylella fastidiosa can be found here.

If you do decide to bring in plants from abroad, you must ensure that you comply with the relevant plant health regulations.

What you can bring in from the EU

If you are bringing plants and plant products into the UK from within the EU, you can bring in most plants or plant products as long as they are:

  • grown in an EU country 
  • free from pests and diseases
  • for your own use or consumption

However, you cannot bring in for planting:

  • Castanea (including sweet chestnut)
  • plants of Platanus (plane)

What you can bring from third countries outside the EU 

If you are bringing plant material from outside of the EU into the UK in personal baggage, you must have a phytosanitary certificate for almost all plants and living parts of plants, including all seeds for planting. 

Plant material exempt from needing a certificate are five tropical fruits (pineapple, coconut, durian, bananas and plantain (Musa spp.), and dates). 

You can find more information on the Defra webpage: Smarter rules for safer food: how to import from third countries.

Some plant material from third countries is prohibited.

You cannot bring in:

  • any plant for planting deemed high risk plants unless a risk assessment is first carried out by the European Food Safety Authority
  • loose soil
  • plants of Ullucus tuberosus (ulluco, a member of the potato family)
  • fruits of Momordica (a type of gourd) which are from third countries where Thrips palmi (a species of thrip) is present 
  • wood of Ulmus where Saperda tridentata (elm borer) is known to occur

In addition, some plants and plant products from third countries are subject to import controls such as pre-notification to import. The list includes:

  • root and tubercle vegetables from all third countries
  • some plants and seeds for sowing

The full list of plants and products from third countries that will require pre-notification and import controls to enter the UK is set out in plant species by import category.

Other plants and plant material from third countries, which is not deemed prohibited or is subject to import controls, can be brought in provided that the material is:

  • in your personal luggage
  • accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate
  • for your personal use
  • not diseased or infected with pests

Note: Processed and packaged products such as fruit and vegetables, including packaged salads, sandwiches and frozen material are also exempt from needing a certificate. Products such as like nut and seed butters containing processed fruit or vegetables do not fall within plant health import controls.

Further information on passenger allowance is available on this European Commission poster (pdf).

Definitions

‘Plant’ means a living plant (including a fungus or tree) or a living part of a plant (including a living part of a fungus or shrub), at any stage of growth.

‘Plant product’ means products of plant origin, that has not been processed or has only undergone simple preparation. Wood and bark are not ‘plant products’.

Pest and disease threats

Disease threats

Xylella fastidiosa is a bacterium that causes serious disease in numerous plant species and that is currently spreading in Europe and other parts of the world. 

There are strict new regulations for importing some Xylella hosts from the 27 EU countries and from third countries (i.e. those outside of the EU). The new regulations apply from the 21 April 2020 and are relevant to the following plant species. 

Olea europaea (olive)
Coffea (coffee)
Lavandula sp. (lavender)
Nerium oleander (oleander)
Polygala myrtifolia (myrtle-leaf milkwort)
Prunus dulcis (almond)
Salvia rosmarinus (rosemary)

Imports of coffee and Polygala myrtifolia plants are prohibited from all EU countries and all third countries. 

Imports of plants of olive and almond are prohibited from all EU countries and all third countries, and will only be permitted if they can meet strict new growing, inspection and testing requirements, details of which need to be provided in an official statement from the exporting country. The official statement must accompany the plants on arrival in the UK.

Plants of rosemary, oleander and lavender can be imported from the EU and all third countries providing they can meet strict new growing, inspection and testing requirements, details of which need to be provided in an official statement from the exporting country. The official statement must accompany the plants on arrival into the UK. 

Pest threats

Many other plants from the EU pose a threat to UK plant health, such as those that are hosts of protected zone pests. The host list includes those covered by Defra’s tree pre-notification scheme (below), as well as various palm species, due to the risk of palm borer and red palm weevil, and many coniferous species due to the risk of regulated bark beetles. The RHS recommends that when bringing these hosts back to the UK, you ensure that the supplier can meet the UK’s protected zone regulations. 

Tree pre-notification scheme

The tree pre-notification scheme requires you, by law, to inform the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) if you are bringing any of the following tree species into the UK from the EU:

  • Castanea (sweet chestnut)
  • Olea europea (olive)
  • Pinus (pine)
  • Platanus (plane)
  • Prunus (stone fruits)
  • Quercus (oak)
  • Ulmus (elm)

You only need to tell the APHA if you are importing these plants privately. If you are using a UK-based nursery they will notify the APHA for you. The APHA can be contacted on planthealth.info@apha.gov.uk or call 01904 405138.

Exporting plants

It is advisable to always contact the plant health authority of the country you wish to export the plants to, in order to find out what plant health regulations in place. 

Exporting plants within the EU 

As with bringing plants into the UK, you are able to send plants to other EU countries providing they are free from pests and diseases, are grown in an EU country and are for your own use or consumption.

From 1 January 2021, the UK will become a third country (i.e. a country outside of the EU) and may need to meet the EU third country import requirements. Third-country rules are likely apply on all plants for planting, wood products and wood packaging and it is likely that you will need to provide a phytosanitary certificate with the material you are sending. You can obtain a health certificate from the Plant Health Authority in the country where the plant was grown. There is likely to be a cost involved with this service.

Sending plants outside of the EU

You may need a health certificate if you export to countries outside of the EU. Further information on exporting rules can be found on the Defra website.

CITES

If you wish to bring back wild plants, you will need to be sure that the plants are not endangered. Here the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) applies. These regulations are detailed and offer different levels of protection to species. Details are available from the Wildlife Licensing and Registration Service.

You can bring back CITES controlled plants which have been grown on a nursery, but you need to be able to produce documentation obtained from the supplier at the time of purchase. Orchids can be imported without permits only as cut flowers or where grown in flasks.

Wild plants, even if not covered by CITES, are often protected from collection in many countries. Increasingly the provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which recognises a country's property rights over its native plants, will also come into force.

There are strict penalties for smuggling prohibited and restricted items. This can include unlimited fines, the possibility of imprisonment, or both.


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