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In the Garden

A horticultural crime wave


ALL RIGHT, EVERYONE. THIS IS MY THIRD -- and last -- column on flower theft. Many of you are probably growing tired of the topic and wish I would move on. And I will, I swear. But there have been some new developments I feel I must report.

First, more anecdotes from readers.

A Eureka gardener made the big mistake of planting an apple tree in the front yard. Now, if a kid takes an apple from your tree, it's hard to object. What a wholesome crime. You're glad they're not taking your VCR and you look the other way when an apple goes missing now and then. At least, that's the approach this gardener took until two neighbors -- adults, not children -- passed her on the sidewalk one day and said, "We sure have been enjoying the apples from your tree." She was so astonished she didn't know what to say. Never in the history of garden theft had such a glib confession been made.

Several gardeners wrote to say that they had caught people in the act of digging up plants and confronted them. The thieves usually ran off. One woman even reported that a friend once ran down the street with a gun in her hand, chasing after a flower thief. (There may be more to that story, but I didn't press for details. After all, there's a war on; I think we could all use a little peace here at home.)

If I can pass on one bit of advice about confronting flower thieves, it would be this: Please don't pull out your gun. Miss Manners would probably suggest a look of mild disappointment and confusion that conveys your sorrow over your neighbor's fall from grace. Practice that look in front of a mirror, and put the weapon back in the safe.

Now, on to more serious matters. There does seem to be a pattern of flower theft in our community. According to several gardeners -- and I confirmed this with the Eureka and Arcata police departments -- the crime typically goes like this:photo of hydrangeas

Somebody knocks on your door and asks if they can pick some flowers (usually hydrangeas). They might say they want to give them to their mother, or they want to take them to a birthday party, or some other nonsense. You say no, because after all, they are your flowers and besides, a hydrangea bush looks quite asymmetrical once you start picking off a few blossoms.

The next morning, you wake up, and every flower has been stripped off the bush. Worse, the bush may be trampled to the ground.

"I heard of five or six reports of this kind of theft last year," Suzie Owsley of the Eureka Police Department told me. "People wake up in the morning and their bush has just been mowed over. Hydrangeas are the most common type of theft. Newly landscaped areas also get hit a lot. When we get these calls, we take what's called a non-suspect police report for petty theft or vandalism. But there's not much we can do because the thefts happen at night."

Tom Chapman of the Arcata Police Department said he gets six to 10 calls a year. "It's frustrating," he said. "We sympathize, we really do. It's happened to me personally. Somebody in the neighborhood helps themselves to my artichokes."

I thought about all the artichoke thefts in my own front yard that have gone unreported. Now, I'm not suggesting that you flood your local police department with reports of garden thefts -- they have more important things to do -- but just imagine how many unreported flower thefts there must be around town. It's starting to sound like a horticultural crime wave.

It also appears that we may have more hardened criminals at work that I had previously believed. After talking to gardeners, police officers, and even a few florists, a picture began to emerge of a shadowy floral underground, a black market of sorts, in which a ragtag group of thieves snip hydrangeas, dahlias, lilacs and other high-end flowers and sell them to wholesalers, who cart them off to distant markets in the Bay Area or, worse, southern California, where they are sold at flower markets. It's a tale of mystery, intrigue and petty crime -- exactly the sort of story that would make a good paperback mystery. I encourage some literary gardening type out there (oops, sounds like me) to put pen to paper and flesh out the details. I'll even offer up a title: Deadheaded. Or how about The Gardener Who Pruned Too Much? Or Perennial Crimes, orwell, never mind. Choose your own title.

And for a main character, may I suggest Greg (no last names, please), another self-confessed flower thief. Now, he is certainly not the hardboiled black market kind of flower thief, but the confession he wrote to me offered extraordinary insight into his methods. He told me that he had three rules for stealing flowers:

1. There must be quite a few of the particular flower, so that if a few are "liberated," they will not be missed.

2. Flowers must be leaning into public property -- trailing over a sidewalk or peeking out of a fence. He will not trespass.

3. He always uses scissors.

I contacted Chris Fore, a psychologist I know who works in a prison, and asked him for an expert opinion about this kind of "criminal logic." He said the following:

"First, he's just admiring another's flowers, but soon this isn't enough. An overwhelming desire to possess the flowers begins to form. Of course, he could buy his own flowers, but these do not hold the allure of the forbidden flowers. At this point an internal struggle begins. In psychology we call this cognitive dissonance.

"He knows that the correct, law-abiding thing to do is to walk away, but this desire to possess the flowers, even at the cost of breaking the law, grows stronger. It is this conflict that forces such criminals to develop rules and logic to justify their actions. Once the rules are in place, the law-breaking citizen can take flowers without the slightest remorse.

"Unfortunately, this type of logic is often a slippery slope. One day he might see a gorgeous flower that meets all of his criteria, but it is 5 feet into the yard. After a brief internal struggle -- cognitive dissonance -- he will say something like, `Well, just this once.' Of course, afterwards it gets easier. And of course, taking flowers could be a `gateway' crime. Soon he could be stealing newspapers, UPS packages and even household pets. It is clear that he, and others like him, must be stopped."

There you have it, folks -- the last word on flower thieves. Don't tempt me with any more of your beguiling stories. And for heaven's sake, move your hydrangeas to the back yard.

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


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