China has one of the most species-rich native flora in the world, yet some wild flower species such as orchids are fast disappearing due to commercial sales.
Some botanists say consumers are to blame for the extinction of many wild species, yet few studies have investigated the role of consumer behavior in driving exploitation of rare, wild species in the lucrative horticultural trade.
A study led by Sophie Williams, a postdoctoral researcher at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden under the Chinese Academy of Sciences investigated consumer preferences for particular attributes of ornamental plants and her findings were published in the journal Conservation Letters in May.
Williams' research team found that most consumers who purchase wild orchids are unaware they are buying an endangered species. They just want cheap colorful flowers, and would be just as happy buying cultivated plants.
To quantify the role of consumer preference for wild orchids in China's horticultural market, the researchers used conjoint analysis to determine which attributes are preferred by orchid owners and non-owners in two socio-economically contrasting areas of south China.
The study investigated consumers in both Xishuangbanna, a sparsely populated rural area in southwest China, and Hong Kong, a densely populated metropolis, and found that consumer preference was not driving demand for wild or rare orchids in Chinese flower markets.
Across both study sites, price and color were found to be the most important attributes. While a slight preference for wild plants was detected at Xishuangbanna, plant origin was the last factor.
The majority of consumers in the sample did not know of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), according to Williams.
The China Wild Flora Conservation Association (CWFCA) said traders often bought large quantities of wild orchids from villagers at very low prices and selected rare species from them, which were then sold at higher prices.
"A number of rare species of wild orchids have become endangered and only a few still growing in remote mountainous regions but they face extinction," said Ma Fu, president of the CWFCA.
Williams' research suggested that the best way to preserve wild orchids might be to strengthen enforcement of existing regulations to prevent wild plants being sold.
"We should support legal businesses that sell sustainable commercially grown orchids, to save wild species from extinction," Williams said.