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.

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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 new restrictions on importing plants into the UK from the EU
  • Plant material arriving into GB from the EU must now have a phytosanitary certificate
  • The UK has a new UK plant passport system
  • If in doubt, contact the Animal and Plant Health Agency

Brexit

The UK has now left the EU and there are new restrictions (Plant Health (EU Exit) Regulations 2020) for bringing plant material into Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland) from the EU.

Northern Ireland (NI), unlike GB, will remain as part of the EU single market and will therefore continue to follow EU plant health regulations for imported plant material. This means that plant material entering NI from the EU must have an EU plant passport. Movement of plant material from NI to GB, however, will require a phytosanitary certificate (PC); the EU plant passport is no longer valid in the UK. 

Bringing plants to the UK from abroad

Imported plants and plant products are the main pathway of entry for invasive pests and diseases. Plants for planting such as, ornamental trees, pot plants and cuttings are the highest risk. 

The UK is free of many pests and diseases that are present in other parts of Europe and beyond. It is crucial that we protect our gardens, crops and environment from harmful pests and diseases. If you intend to bring material into the UK, it is important that you comply with the relevant plant health regulations. 

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.

What you can bring in from the EU

Although it is possible to bring in plants and plant material for personal use, the new import system for plants is tailored towards professional operators. The new plant health regulations now prevents the public from bringing in most plants and plant products in their personal baggage.

Prior to Brexit, private individuals could bring some plant material into the UK from other EU member countries providing that the material was accompanied with an EU plant passport and providing it met some specific requirements. As the UK has now left the EU, the EU plant passport is no longer valid in GB. Post Brexit you must have a phytosanitary certificate (PC) to import plant material from the EU. This includes almost all plants for planting, most seeds, cut flowers and tuber vegetables such as potatoes from the EU. 

How to import material from the EU

Individuals wanting to import plants for planting from the EU for personal use can do so by registering, free of charge, as an importer via the government's PEACH system.

As part of the import process, the individual importer would need to obtain a phytosanitary certificate for the material they are importing. In addition, from 1 January through to 31 December 2021, all plants and plant products eligible for import from the EU (termed High Priority Plants) are also required to undergo import pre-notification to the government via PEACH, and will need to have document checks and a physical health check completed at an inland place of destination (PoD). The individual importer can register a private home address as a PoD, alternatively, it may be possible to make an arrangement with a local garden centre or nursery, that may be willing to act as a PoD. Here is further information about registering as a PoD.

There are costs associated with the importation process related to applying for phytosanitary certificates, checks and inspections that an individual importer is expected to meet. 

To find out more about importing plant material from the EU, please use the following link.

Obtaining a phytosanitary certificate (PC)

A PC is issued from the plant health authority of the country where the plant material originates from to guarantee that the material has been officially inspected, is free from pests and diseases and meets the legal requirements for the material to enter GB.

To apply for a PC you must register with the government’s eDomero system for plants or plant products or with the Forestry Commission for wood or wood products. In order to register for an eDomero account you need to provide a ‘Client ID’ which must be given to you by your local APHA plant health and seeds inspector (PHSI).

What you can bring from third countries outside the EU 

Most plants and plant material originating from outside of the EU (i.e. third countries) must also have a phytosanitary certificate for importation. Regulated plant material from third countries also requires pre-notification (as with EU goods).

You can find more information on the rules around bringing plant material from third countries on the Defra website.

If you’re not sure whether the item you want to bring to GB is regulated and requires pre-notification, check the list of plant species by import category or contact the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).

Plants that will not need a phytosanitary certificate (PC) for import 

There are some plant products that are considered low risk and that can be imported into GB from the EU and third countries without a PC, these include processed and packaged products (e.g. salads, sandwiches, frozen material), composite products (e.g. nut or seed butters that contain processed fruit or vegetables), and the following fruits/leaves;

  • Pineapple
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Coconuts
  • Citrus
  • Kumquat
  • Bitter orange
  • Persimmon
  • Durian
  • Cotton (bolls)
  • Curry leaves
  • Banana and plantain
  • Mango
  • Dates
  • Passionfruit
  • Guava

Prohibited plant material

Imports of some plant material from third countries is prohibited. A licence is required from APHA to import, move or hold prohibited material. Licences are not available to the public and are only issued for the following purposes:

  • official testing
  • scientific research
  • educational purposes
  • trials
  • testing new varieties of plants (varietal selection)
  • breeding

The full list of plants and plant products from third countries that are prohibited can be found in Schedule 6 of the government’s EU Exit 2020 plant health regulations. Check this link for more details and Schedule 6.

UK plant passport scheme

The UK now has a new plant passport scheme. Plants previously moved around GB on an EU plant passport, will now need a UK plant passport for movement. The issuing of plant passports is generally only applicable to professional operators (e.g. nurseries and garden centres) that are moving and selling plants to other professional operators.  

A nursery or garden centre will not need to pass on a UK plant passport to a customer if they are buying plants for personal use at a retail premise. The one exception to this rule is if a customer is purchasing a plant via an online sale. In this instance, the retailer must supply the purchaser with the plant passport for traceability purposes.

Buying plants via the internet

Plants ordered from overseas via the internet are subject to the same phytosanitary requirements as plants imported via other trading routes. 

We encourage gardeners to help protect the UK from the introduction of unwanted pests and diseases by always buying plants from established and trusted British mail order or internet seed and plant sellers. Plants and seeds for sale from reputable British companies may have originated from overseas but will have been imported following the government’s strict plant health regulations meaning the risk of inadvertently introducing new pests and diseases is significantly reduced. Plants for sale on large online platforms and market places may not provide details of a plant’s origin or could potentially be unregulated plants or seeds which have not been subject to the necessary plant health checks.

The government’s Plant Health and Seed Inspectorate are encouraging members of the public to report any suspicious or unsolicited plant products by email to PlantHealth.Info@apha.gov.uk

Pest and disease threats

The threat from Xylella fastidiosa

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 regulations for importing some Xylella hosts from the EU and from third countries. The import of many plant hosts of Xylella fastidiosa will be prohibited unless there is an official statement from the plant health authority in the exporting country that Xylella fastidiosa is either not present in the country or the plants have been grown in a disease free area. 

For the following plant species, import from third countries and from the EU 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.

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

Other pest and disease threats

Prior to Brexit the UK was termed a ‘protected zone’. That meant it could apply additional measures to protect itself from pests and diseases not present in the UK. As GB has left the EU, it can no longer use this term. However, GB will maintain its biosecurity protection using two other designations

  • GB quarantine pests (which are absent throughout GB); and
  • Pest Free Area (PFA) pests (which are absent in only part of GB)

Additionally, before Brexit GB already had strict plant health regulations in place to prevent the entry of quarantine pests and these will remain in place under the new EU exit regulations (as described above). 

Plants that are hosts of PFA pests will need to have a special UK plant passport that signifies that it is a PFA host if being traded in GB. The passport also provides assurance that the plant has been grown in a pest free area for the relevant PFA pest. Currently, for plant movements within GB, PFA UK plant passports are only required for oak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionea).

Exporting plants to the EU and third countries

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 are in place. 

Following Brexit, GB has become a third country (i.e. a country outside of the EU) and will 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 (PC) with the material you are sending. Some types of plant material are prohibited from entering the EU. 

You can obtain a PC from the Plant Health Authority in the country where the plant was grown. There is likely to be a cost involved with this service. To find out more about exporting to the EU and third countries, click here.

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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