Bulb import permits

Lee Poulsen wpoulsen@pacbell.net
Mon, 07 Mar 2016 20:50:21 PST
On Mar 7, 2016, at 4:43 PM, Jane McGary <janemcgary@earthlink.net> wrote:

>  A friend and I would like to order some bulbs (in small quantities) from a European grower, but we don't know what level of USDA permits we need to do this. My only experiences importing occurred before the present regulations were instituted, and all I had to do was walk the shipment through Customs and show the phytosanitary documents. Can someone who imports from Europe tell us which permits are required, and perhaps reflect on how difficult it is to get them (probably VERY difficult, judging from the complexity of just getting the Small Lots of Seed permit)?

I just imported a few bulbs from former (and maybe current) member Lauw de Jager’s nursery Bulb’Argence last fall. 

I renewed my plant import permit, which is different than the Small Lots of Seed permit, but is also free. The seed import permit lasts 3 years between renewals and the plant import permit lasts 5 years.

There is a complex way to electronically request a renewal of an import permit, which as others have mentioned, includes an initial visit in-person to a USDA facility as one of the steps to set up your account. (The nearest location for me is an hour’s drive, one way, beyond the edge of the metropolitan area.)
However, as Timothy Chapman said, it’s much simpler to just do it the "old-fashioned" way by filling out a paper copy of the permit application (which you can find on the USDA APHIS/PPQ website as a downloadable PDF file which you then print out). Then you fax it to the number given on the form. Unlike Timothy, my renewed permit took 2 weeks to get to me rather than his 24-hour experience. However, like him, it *was* emailed to me as a PDF file. (I used to have to scan the paper permit they sent me into a PDF file I could email to the overseas nursery when I made my order.) However, this time I never got any green and yellow labels either as an emailed file or as snail-mailed paper labels. Also, in filling out the application, if you list multiple ports of entry (New York, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, etc.) and multiple species you think you might want to import, maybe 4 or 5 ports and 5 or 6 species, they’ll issue you a permit that indicates you can import any allowed species through any port of entry.

Before 9/11 occurred, no permit and no phytosanitary certificate was needed to import clean dormant bulbs from anywhere, and I did it many times. After 9/11, the USDA decided to take advantage of a clause in the plant and animal import law that gives them the authority to impose a permit and/or phyto requirement even for bulbs—which they chose to do.

Initially they wanted to require a phytosanitary certificate for any plant material of any kind, including seeds. But a hue and cry went up across the country from plant people all over, and the USDA responded by inventing the Small Lots of Seeds permit which did *not* require the phyto. It is the only type of plant import permit that does not require a phyto certificate to accompany the plant material. All other plant materials require an accompanying phyto in order to import it legally.

As several have mentioned, for small numbers of plant materials, I think it is 12 items or less as has been mentioned, I think an import permit is not required. However, the phyto *is* required. 

So the key to importing any plant material, bulbs, etc., other than seeds, is to obtain a phytosanitary certificate. As long as you have that (and the plants are not on the banned list), it’s very simple to import plants to the U.S. Getting that certificate is always the problem unless the nursery is already willing to obtain it for you. Lauw actually provides a phyto as an item you can order on his website along with the bulbs. And he only charges €10. That is about the cheapest I’ve seen unless it’s included in the purchase price somehow. Often I see charges of $50 or more, which means importing a few bulbs can cost more for the phyto than for the bulbs themselves. (And I think Australia charges in 15-minute increments which can make the phyto very expensive if it takes a long time to inspect your order.) And often it seems, I find a source for something I really really want and they state explicitly that they don’t or won’t provide phytos at all. (This is when I wish there was an option to pay the USDA inspection station to do a phyto inspection upon arrival in the U.S. But that is currently not an option.) I’ve heard some countries will not allow private individuals to get a phyto, only businesses, which makes it difficult to get bulbs from overseas friends who live in such countries. I don’t know if it’s still the case, but Japan has one of the easiest ways to get a phyto if you’re bringing the plants or bulbs back in person. They have an inspection station at the international airport in Narita (Tokyo). You just call ahead and make an appointment for a couple of hours before you originally planned to arrive at the airport and they inspect the plants right there and type out a phyto on the spot.

Anyway, if you can get a phyto, whether by paying for it outright or having it provided by the seller, and a plant import permit, you can easily import any botanical item. (You can even import seeds with a standard plant import permit—as long as you get a phyto for them!)

Now, my experience is that when importing from most first world countries, the postal system hardly ever intercepts packages with plants or seeds in them. I know this because the package arrives directly to me unopened and very quickly. I’ve experienced this in packages from England, France, Australia, and New Zealand, for example. The postal system apparently is more suspicious of packages from non-first world countries. I’ve had packages occasionally intercepted for inspection before being forwarded to me from Brazil, Chile, and South Africa. However, my experience has been that if it’s a small package, and it is sent international registered mail, those almost never get intercepted for inspection no matter which country they’re sent from. 

Anyway, the above summarizes my experience over the years with importing seeds, bulbs, and plants.

--Lee Poulsen
Pasadena, California, USA - USDA Zone 10a
Latitude 34°N, Altitude 1150 ft/350 m

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