Gardens - Specialty Gardens

Ground larceny

Garden plants and paraphernalia have become a hot item for thiefs

Green thumbs are a sticky-fingered bunch. We've heard the crime stories: rose bushes yanked from the ground. Massive cast-iron urns, overflowing with plants, dragged away in the dead of night. Insatiable collectors hiring burglars to snatch prized bonsai trees. Worst of all, this past spring a British couple were robbed of their entire garden.

Linda and Colin Warburton returned to their Bristol home to find it plundered of evergreens, perennials, benches, stone ornaments, a six-foot by four-foot (180- by 120-centimetre) pond and its 17 fish. "You expect people to take ornaments and plants but not a pond," Linda Warburton said. "I cemented lots of the ornaments down, but they just took the patio slabs as well."

Homeowners' insurance policies often cover the loss of trees and plants up to certain limits, but most thievery takes place on a smaller scale: a plucked blossom here, a slip nipped off there, a handful of seeds. Multiply each tiny larceny by dozens of snips and pinches and you'll appreciate people's reluctance to open their properties for tours, or the stern warnings at public gardens to keep your paws to yourself. Staff at the Devonian Botanic Garden in Edmonton are still smarting over an incident several years ago when they apprehended a visitor smuggling specimens out in a knapsack.

For the guilty, rationalizing a theft is easy: they'll never miss this; they're not taking care of it; it's hard to find in stores; it's growing on public land. Plants are most at risk in the unguarded outdoors, where no one is watching. Wildcrafting, the gathering of plants from their natural habitat, has increased along with the popularity of herbal products, and so has poaching. Unethical foragers have depleted already dwindling colonies of endangered goldenseal and American ginseng in Quebec and Ontario, and in the U.S. even common species such as purple coneflower are under siege. Alarmed by widespread illegal digging of Echinacea angustifolia and E. purpurea, the North Dakota legislature last year passed an emergency measure allowing fines of up to $10,000 for anyone found in possession of a single purloined coneflower.

At Lake Mead, a U.S. national park on the Arizona-Nevada border, officials are determined to foil plant-nappers and retrieve their stolen goods. They're embedding tiny transponders, about the size of a grain of rice, in the park's valuable cactus and yucca plants, and enlisting global positioning system technology to track the coded tags in hopes of catching greenery thieves red-handed.

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