When the package arrived without issue, the vendor turned Mat on to the Facebook Nepenthes community. If the forums were the farmers markets of carnivorous plant collecting, Facebook was its Amazon. Southeast Asian sellers posted literal piles of rare Nepenthes species for sale, often far larger than nursery plants and at a fraction of the price. His collecting went into overdrive. “It just blew my mind,” Mat says. “All these people who had these amazing plants, I realized, were ordering them from people internationally. And this is the way they were able to acquire these things without completely breaking the bank.”
As his home life came to revolve around his collection, so did Mat’s social circle. The growers he met on the forums became real-life friends. He founded a carnivorous plant club in Portland and invited anyone who wanted to attend—his classmates, old-timer collectors. At one meeting in November 2013, a new collector showed up and introduced himself as Jimmy. A white man with sandy blond hair and a “sunken” face, Mat says, Jimmy “kinda looked like a hunter … one of those off-the-grid types.” Jimmy was friendly, but to Mat he seemed nervous, “furtive.” Theft is common among jealous Nepenthes collectors, and Mat suspected Jimmy was scoping the growers’ collections, searching for a mark. But Jimmy asked a lot of entry-level questions, and Mat soon pegged him as an awkward Nepenthes noob trying to learn more about the hobby. Mat gave him a chance. He told Jimmy to look up pictures of Nepenthes rajah, a giant species that makes gallon-sized traps. “I have those, I grow them,” Mat boasted.
Two months later, Jimmy tagged along with a handful of enthusiasts to Mat’s apartment to see his collection. Mat complained that a Nepenthes shipment had arrived infected with fungus, and now he’d never be able to resell them. Jimmy snapped a photo of the infested plants. It wasn’t the first time Mat had received Neps in rough shape. In some cases, it was because he’d bought them from Borneo—the source.
As he had connected with more sellers from Malaysia and Indonesia, some of his orders had arrived tattered, fresh dirt and moss still clinging to their roots. Horticulturally produced Nepenthes don’t typically come with the patchy, sunburnt leaves these plants had. They looked as if they’d come straight from the unforgiving rain forests where they grew naturally—and where they were protected by local and international law. Mat wasn’t just importing plants illegally. He was importing illegal plants.
Soon after this realization, he received an envelope from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The feds had seized one of his packages from Malaysia, a shipment of 35 plants, including at least one N. rajah, which falls under the tightest restrictions on internationally traded wildlife, alongside leopards, pandas, and various species of orchid. When Mat asked more experienced growers about the letter, they assured him it was no big deal. They’d lost shipments to the feds before, too. The worst that could happen was a fine, maybe a warning visit from a federal agent.