To deter burglary, keep an eye on that flowering verbena

A beautiful garden may be the homeowner's dream, but some take an illegal route to achieve it. Across America, plant theft is on the rise.

This spring, Laura Keane donned straw hat and garden gloves for another go at landscaping her husband's Spanish-style office building. But she didn't dare plant anything she thought would be temptingly attractive.

That's because for the past two years, the colorful bromeliads, palms, and blooming flowers have been stolen.

"I thought if I planted something ... ugly, that no one would want them," Mrs. Keane says.

But she was wrong. Small holes are the only sign that even some "ugly" bromeliads were ever bedded in this older St. Petersburg, Fla., neighborhood. Plant thieves, who typically strike in the night with hand trowels, shovels, buckets, and leaves of larceny in their hearts, made off with a handful of the spiny plants.

It's the shady backlash to the Martha Stewart trend of lawn beautification. Everyone now has to have that "Better Homes & Garden" lawn, but not everyone can or will pay for it. They just take someone else's.

It's difficult to know how pervasive plant plunderings are in the United States, since there's no national crime watch on plant thievery - unlike Britain, whose Scotland Yard has a special garden-theft unit, and where insurance companies estimate that 1 in 7 gardens are burglarized every summer.

Still, anecdotal evidence in Florida suggests that if the thievery hasn't hit you, there's a good chance it's hit someone you know. Elsewhere in the nation, there are enough police reports and gripes on gardening websites to show it isn't just a Southern frailty.

When the verbena in Steve Pankow's Medford, Ore., front yard began dripping deep purple blooms last year, temptation overtook one plant lover. While Mr. Pankow was at work, a neighbor spotted a woman pull her station wagon up to his flower bed, open the tailgate, dig up the plants, and toss them in her car. The neighbor told police it looked as if other plants were already in the car.

Police tracked the car's license plate number to a home about 10 miles away, where a woman admitted she had lifted the plants. She said she did it to fulfill a deal to landscape her mother's business, which was only two blocks from Pankow's home. For various reasons, Pankow chose not press charges.

Green-thumb burglars seem to have even fewer scruples about plucking flora from community or commercial property. Downtown Minneapolis high-rises have been the scene of many a horticulture crime this year, with thousands of dollars worth of plants taken from lobbies and atria. Some apartment buildings in New York have taken to chaining down trees and shrubs. Along the Long Island expressway, government workers planted shrubs and evergreens; almost all were stolen within six to eight weeks.

Greenery grabbers backed their pickup up to a Zephyrhills, Fla., park restroom building this spring and dug up every liriope and Mexican heather plant surrounding it - about 70 in all, says Shane LaBlanc, parks and facilities director. "I think it's just pretty desperate," he says. "I think it's somebody landscaping their house, and they're just cutting corners." But it's at the city's expense. In all, the city lost about $750 worth of plants.

Despite much publicity about the Zephyrhills park thefts, the plant rustlers were never arrested. In fact, it's rare that plant thieves are ever caught, says Bill Robinson, a police information officer in San Diego.

In response, a new industry has sprouted to stop plant thieves. Electronix Systems Central Station Alarms in Huntington Station, N.Y., sells an alarm to install in yards that emits ear-piercing messages such as, "Hey, you. Get off my lawn!" or, "I'm calling the cops!"

To make evergreens unattractive to saw-wielding Christmas-tree scavengers, a Cornell University gardener invented the "ugly mix." The gooey mixture of hydrated limestone and food coloring turns the trees temporarily pink.

For Bonsai tree owners, there's a solution that treats your plant as a pet. Just insert a computer chip into your tree, and if it ever wanders away and is recovered, you can prove it's yours.

But if you've already blown your budget on plants, try making your pooch sleep outside at night, or mulching your pretty plants with manure. For the canine-deprived, try what Keane in St. Petersburg resorted to: replacing your stolen treasures with thorny plants. A thorny rose may never have smelled so sweet.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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