The value of UK imports of live trees and plants has averaged around £97 million over the last year. However, with increasing trade comes increasing risk of pests and diseases being inadvertently imported.

There are now more than 1,000 pests and diseases on the UK plant health risk register. Some introduced plant pest and diseases, for example, ash dieback, box tree moth and horse chestnut leaf miner have spread widely in the UK and are causing significant changes to our landscape and horticultural practices.

The current situation

In December 2019, new EU legislation was implemented to improve plant health [EU Plant-Health-Regulation-2016/2031].

The aim of the legislation is to ensure safe trade, as well as to mitigate the impacts of climate change on the health of our crops and forests 

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

The new legislation means there are changes to the passenger allowances with regard to what plant material can be imported into the UK. Plants and plant products can be brought into the UK from within the EU as long as they are grown in an EU country, free from pests and diseases, and are for personal use or consumption. 

There are some restrictions however, and plants of Castanea (including sweet chestnut) and Platanus (plane) for planting are prohibited.

If you are bringing plant material from outside of the EU into the UK in personal baggage, you must have a phytosanitary certificate (PC) for almost all plants and living parts of plants, including all seeds for planting. Fruits of pineapple, coconut, durian, bananas and plantain (Musa spp.), and dates do not require a PC. 

You can bring in plants and plant products, other than the plants and products listed, from all third countries provided that the material is:

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

You cannot bring in:

  • any plants deemed high risk plants unless a risk assessment is first carried out by the European Food Safety Authority
  • loose soil

Further information on the passenger allowance for plants and plant products is available at this link (Importing from outside of the EU)

What are we doing?

We are championing better plant health in gardens by working on the detection and identification of new pests and diseases and developing more effective controls for them. 

We've also implemented and follow six plant health principles, which guide our work across gardens, shows and retail. Immediate actions stemming from these principles include:

  • Banning nine plant groups, identified by Defra as being particularly susceptible to diseases caused by Xylella fastidiosa, from being exhibited at RHS Shows (unless UK sourced and grown). They are: Coffea spp. (coffee), Hebe spp. (hebe), Lavandula spp. (lavender), Nerium oleander (oleander), Olea europaea (olive), Polygala myrtifolia (polygala), Prunus spp. (cherry, plum etc.), Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary), and Spartium junceum (Spanish broom), 
  • Incorporating evaluation of plant health risk into judging criteria for gardens at RHS Shows
  • Holding imported plants and semi-mature trees for a period of time in isolation (plant quarantine) prior to planting in RHS gardens
  • Wherever possible using UK grown and sourced plant material

Possible solutions

The UK’s withdrawal from the European Union will provide an opportunity to revise its approach to plant health and focus on a system that meets the country’s needs. Brexit also provides an opportunity to review and understand how biosecurity is managed in countries known to have good standards, such as Australia and New Zealand.

We’ve detailed below what we think policymakers must do, in coordination with industry, to ensure the sustainability of horticulture in the UK:

Cross-sector governance group

The formation of a cross-sector governance group - retail, arboriculture, horticulture and research, for example - to provide a strategic overview and independent advice to ministers. An international example of a successful scheme would be the Biosecurity Ministerial Advisory Committee in New Zealand. 

Improved legislation

Development of protocols to ensure biosecurity regulation is consistent and risk-based across pathways, in alignment with the creation of compensation and/or insurance schemes for plant health responses for the industry – including production and retail – and landowners/householders.

This would include private importers, the internet trade, as well as the horticultural and plant trade industry. For example, plant health risks could be reduced by removing the allowance for private importation of plants in passenger baggage from the EU – the current requirements are still complex, and difficult to enforce.

The implementation of visible border controls on private baggage would help to lessen the pest and disease risk. This would include increased advertising to explain and raise awareness of restrictions to travellers, a statutory declaration on arrival and profiling high-risk pathways. 

After the UK has left the EU on 1 January 2021 there may be opportunities to revise our plant health regulatory requirements to better provide the level of protection we require. For example, this could include reducing inspections of citrus fruit but increasing measures to prevent the importation of Xylella.

Plant health certification scheme

Introduce a national, possibly international, plant health certification scheme mandatory for all UK importers of nursery stock. The scheme would require operators to have biosecurity training and records maintenance, so there is traceability, and minimum plant reception periods. The latter would be determined according to risk, for example, from tissue cultured plants, dormant cuttings, rooted trees etc.

Incentives to improve biosecurity in trade

Import substitution is very closely linked to biosecurity risks as imported, woody-plant material represents one of the higher risk pest and disease pathways. The development of an industry/government nursery investment / incentive biosecurity scheme would enable improved UK infrastructure, training, skills to increase in-country production and economic growth whilst reducing biosecurity risks. 

Public education

Defra, working with the industry utilise this opportunity to increase public awareness of plant health and biosecurity risks to ensure that the public understands their responsibility and drive cultural change. Ensuring that the UK’s plant health regulatory requirements are presented in a way that is accessible and user-friendly, (for the public and industry) would contribute to this outcome.


With your support, we can undertake valuable research into gardening pests and diseases.

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.