Thefts have green thumbs seeing red

In Oakwood and beyond, home gardeners find holes where plants used to be

Staff WriterJune 15, 2009 

— A rose bush, some pansies, a pair of pencil hollies, some Boston ferns -- those and more stolen by the shadowy Oakwood plant thief, an outlaw with a garden trowel.

In the last few weeks, more than a dozen people in this historic district have awakened to find plants dug up and swiped, snatched from hanging baskets or yanked out of cast-iron planters.

Outrage has risen high enough that residents are training cameras on their front porches at night or contemplating barbed wire around their blooms.

"He's getting bolder," said Gail Wiesner, who lives on Euclid Street but also owns a house nearby on East Lane where roses were uprooted. "He's got some knowledge. He's got a way to sell them."

Oakwood makes a tempting target, with its garden clubs and Victorian houses, but plant thieves are striking across the Triangle and nationwide as a quick-buck crime in an economy gone sour.

Last week, someone ripped a tiger lily out of a garden in Wendell. The victim pleaded for help on craigslist, describing the perpetrator as "sick."

In April, a $15 pot of flowers vanished from a grave at Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens. In February, a plant and its soil disappeared from a North Raleigh yard. And in January, thieves took the fresh flowers Mike Phillips planted outside the community center he hopes to open in Southeast Raleigh. He replaced them with plastic blooms.

It's common for state and national parks to find thieves making off with orchids or cycads, but heists from everyday gardens are growing common enough that master gardeners nationwide offer warnings.

"Here's what's so irritating about plant thefts," writes best-selling garden author Amy Stewart on her blog, "Dirt." "The people who steal plants right out of the ground must not really be gardeners. If they were gardeners, they would understand that plants cost money. They're not just these free things that happen to sprout up out of the ground by chance."

Oakwood forms a theory

But in Oakwood, suspicions run to shady landscapers enlisting the down-and-out as plant fetchers.

On East Jones Street, Craig Daingerfield lost a pair of pencil hollies from his front porch, but his neighbor's camera caught the act on tape. The perpetrator looked a bit haggard, riding up to his yard on a 10-speed bike, yanking the plants and darting off. A few days later, at about dawn, he noticed another man he took to be homeless loitering on a neighbor's lawn. He confronted the man, who ran down Jones Street to the east.

"Somebody must be giving them a couple dollars for these things," Daingerfield said. "It's crazy."

If you wanted to sell a plant, Wiesner said, it wouldn't be hard to find a roadside stand or landscaper willing to take them.

It's obvious the thief knows something about gardening, she added. She has 100 rose bushes planted at her East Lane property, but the plant snatcher only went for the hot cocoa roses -- something of a prize. Luckily, she said, he dropped them in the yard after digging them up, probably startled by oncoming headlights, she guesses.

"There are reasons to steal plants," she said. "If you were to sell a $200 plant for $25, I bet you'd get some takers."

They don't leave a trail

Raleigh police are investigating, but spokesman Jim Sughrue said plant thefts are tricky to follow, even among hard-to-solve property crimes.

"There are no serial numbers on plants," he said. "It's hard to mark them."

But they're easy to miss in Oakwood, leaving holes in the yard and in a green thumb's heart.

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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