You’re traveling far from home and you see a plant you just can’t resist. A perennial you simply can’t find in your local nursery, for example, or a small shrub you’ve been seeking for years. But you’ll be flying home with only a carry-on bag. How can you bring it back in good condition without having to buying a new suitcase… or arriving home to find your bag full of freshly liberated potting soil?
Bare Root is the Secret
In general, the easiest way to bring a plant home by plane is bare root, that is, by first removing its heavy, messy soil. And it’s so easy to do!
First, though, find a plastic bag large enough to slip the roots into, plus a few sheets of newspaper. The hotel where you’re staying ought to be able to find them for you.
Now, the night before returning home, remove the plant from its pot, plunge its roots into the toilet bowl and flush it while swishing the roots back and forth. Repeat if necessary. You want to remove as much soil as possible, especially if you will be crossing a border (in some cases, you can bring the plant back, but not the soil.)
(Don’t be squeamish! Toilet bowl water is perfectly clean, as clean as the tap water in the nearby sink… but don’t try to rinse plant roots in a sink. The drain won’t be able to handle soil and you’ll end up plugging it!)
Once the roots are as soil-free as possible, give the plant a good shake to remove most of the water. Then wrap the roots in a towel and squeeze very lightly, just enough to remove excess moisture (you’ll want the roots to be barely moist). Remove the towel and place the root ball in a plastic bag to keep it from drying out during your trip.
In order to do the least amount of damage possible to the foliage during transit, wrap the plant in newspaper, rolling it tightly to pull the branches upward into a bunch.
You’re now good for a trip lasting from a few hours to up to a week or so (several weeks in the case of orchids and succulents, as they are especially good at tolerating travel).
When you get home, remove the newspaper and plastic bag and plant your discovery in the garden (or repot it if it’s a houseplant), then water well.
It’s as simple as that!
Plants Across International Borders
It’s best to consider reserving the technique described above to situations when you are travelling within your own country. Without an import permit and a phytosanitary certificate, it is almost always illegal to import living plants from abroad. Even within the US, some states, like California, Arizona, and Florida, may require plants undergo inspection or have proper permits before bringing them into the state.
Canadians can however bring houseplants back from the continental United States and Hawaii, although there are a few exceptions. Check here for current information: Plant protection import requirements for plants and plant parts for planting.
Also, plants can travel freely between the countries of the European Union (between Italy and France, for example), but there are restrictions on the movement of certain plants from certain areas because of localized disease or insect infestations. The nursery where you buy the plant should be aware if the movement of any of their plants is in any way restricted.
Bon voyage … and happy gardening!