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In the Garden

More tales of flower thievery


WHEN I WROTE ABOUT FLOWER THEFT IN THESE pages two weeks ago, I had no idea that I would strike a nerve. The topic provoked more mail and phone calls than I have ever received from Journal readers. Clearly, this is a touchy subject, and the psychic wounds inflicted by flower thieves do not fade over time.

Judy Willis, Fortuna artist and real estate broker, wrote to tell me that the potted plants on the steps of her Eureka office were stolen five years ago. Grace Kerr in the Journal's production department is still grieving over the theft of several plants from her potted cactus collection nine years ago. She's also still looking for the plants. So if anyone has seen a 10-year-old saguaro cactus seedling that's probably a foot tall by now -- not to mention several sulcorebutia and rebutia cacti -- she'd like to know about it.

McKinleyville gardener Beth Deibert wrote to complain about the careless manner in which her daffodils were snatched. "Some idiot snipped just the flower tops off and took them, leaving the tall stems bare. This told me that it wasn't even someone who took them home, put them in water and enjoyed them for a few more days." She did try putting up signs asking people not to steal the flowers, but the signs were stolen, too.

This seems to be a common theme among the complaints I heard from flower theft victims. It is bad enough for a person who appreciates flowers, who knows how to pick out the valuable ones and cut them down carefully at the base, to steal. But it is even worse for a vandal to come along and snatch a fistful of flowers, destroying them in the process.

Deborah Oehler in Eureka has experienced both kinds of flower theft. One afternoon, she crafted a color scheme for her garden and bought several dozen pansies to plant in a design in her front yard. Two hours after she'd put them in the ground, someone came along with a shovel and dug them up.

You heard me right. Dug them up.

It didn't take her long to find the pansies. They were planted in a neighbor's garden just up the street.

I asked Deborah if she knocked on the door and demanded her flowers back, but she said she knew the people and they made her nervous. "They were creeps," she said. "Besides, the pansies weren't worth risking my life."

She's had her share of flower vandals, too. After suffering the indignities of trampled rose bushes and stolen plums ("The kids pick them when they're green," she said. "Why? Why?"), she finally put up a 4-foot picket fence.

But the fence has not dampened the interest of people looking for a few free flowers. "One time a guy knocked on my door and told me that he was getting married. He wanted to know if he could pick some hydrangeas from the bush in my front yard. I told him `no,' and you know what? He got all indignant with me! He demanded to know what I was going to do with them! I told him I was going to look at them. That's why I planted them in the first place."

Deborah was getting pretty worked up by this point. So was I. Tales of flower theft will get a gardener's blood pressure up like few other things.

On a roll, she related another episode. "One day I was walking past the cable company's office and a guy in an RV with Wisconsin plates was picking these gorgeous snapdragons that they'd planted in front of their office."

"What'd you do?" I asked excitedly.

"I told him to get back in his RV and get out of town!" she said.

"Yessssss!" I shouted.

As you can tell, I've had a lot of very stimulating conversations this week. These stories of flower theft proved that I was not alone. All over the county, people are snipping flowers and digging up plants. But why? Who would do such a thing?

Artist Nancy Norman, for one. She came forward voluntarily and described herself as an "almost fully recovered flower thief" whose past transgressions have included picking wildflowers ("I tried to leave some for others to enjoy so I wasn't all bad."); picking wild daffodils along Freshwater road ("This seems innocent enough"); and Painting by Nancy Normanoccasionally, late at night, straying into someone's yard to pick a flower. "It seemed to upset the person I was with, as they had a bit more integrity," she said.

She said she would never take a flower from someone's yard now. "I treasure the flowers that bloom in my own yard," she said, "and I would not at all like anyone to take them." Besides, deer, sheep, and goats have all wandered into her garden to munch on her roses and blueberries. "Some might call it payback," she said.

["Portrait of a Flower Thief" by Nancy Norman.]

Fortunately, something good came out of Nancy's life of crime: She painted the portrait of a flower thief pictured here. She also brought me a poem that ran in the New Yorker called "The Flower Thief" by Deborah Digges. Her hands are pollen-stained and dewy, the poem goes, and gone at last are any traces of remorse.

It is charming, really, to think of some gardenless soul out wandering at night, looking for solace in the shape of a flower. Almost enough to make me forgive and forget. Almost. Nancy, in exchange for the painting and the poem, you're absolved. As for the rest of you, stay away from my garden, and stay away from Deborah Oehler's, too. We're watching out for you.

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If you think you've got problems with flower theft, imagine what the folks at the Heritage Rose Garden in San Jose have to deal with. Five thousand rose bushes could prove to be too much of a temptation for anyone. The Humboldt County Rose Society has invited Mel Hulse, volunteer supervisor at the rose garden, to speak about the history of the garden and the challenges of its ongoing maintenance. The public is invited to attend his talk on March 17 at 7:30 in the evening in the Friendship Room of the First Baptist Church at 422 Del Norte in Eureka. For more information, call 768-2040.

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E-mail garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.





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