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‘Booby-trapped’ daffodils and a stolen water lily: 100 years of plant thefts

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Notice photographed in 2011 at the 6 & B Garden in Manhattan's East Village, New York

As you can see from this notice, photographed in a garden in New York, plant thefts from gardens both public and private can, understandably, elicit strong emotions from those who care for them. And although perhaps not everyone promises such drastic repercussions, I sympathise with the sentiment!

Thefts from gardens are unfortunately an increasing problem, and even institutions as illustrious as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew suffer losses. In 2014, the theft of a rare plant from Kew's Princess of Wales Conservatory hit the headlines, as the Metropolitan Police announced that a rare water lily, Nymphaea Thermarum, had been taken from the Conservatory's pond.

Nymphaea Thermarum. Photograph RBG, Kew

Only discovered in 1987, and thought to be the smallest water lily in the world, it’s now extinct in the wild (it's originally from Rwanda). The theft was, of course, a dream story for the media and was hyped-up in some newspapers as “plant-theft of the century” and, although Kew were somewhat mystified by the attention, for them the loss of such a rare plant was a blow.

The waterlily's bright green lily pads only measure around 1cm across and its tiny white flowers with yellow stamens are barely bigger than a fingernail. Therefore it was probably very easy for the thief to pull out the waterlily from the damp, temperature-controlled mud it was growing in, and make off with it without anyone noticing.

An outdated view persists that most thefts from public and private gardens are due to ‘little old ladies’ or keen gardeners taking a few seeds and a cutting or two, and popping them into voluminous handbags. These days however, plant crime is an increasing, and for the perpetrators financially rewarding, activity. It’s even thought the water lily may have been stolen to order - and could have been sold for thousands of pounds.

Water Lily Pond at the Princess of Wales Conservatory, RBG, Kew. Photograph by N. Chadwick

Unfortunately, theft and vandalism in large public gardens has been a problem for centuries. Only a few years after the opening of Kew gardens to the public in 1841, visitor numbers rose dramatically with, in particular, “vast Bank Holiday crowds” – so much so that, in 1847, the Royal Botanic Gardens Constabulary was formed. Initially, Kew’s very own police force consisted of Metropolitan Police constables but, by the early 20th century, they had been replaced with ex-servicemen. These men acted as gardeners from 6am in the morning and as ‘constables’ from 1pm until closing time, with a Metropolitan Police constable retained to patrol at night. The photograph below, showing the constabulary looking rather resplendent in their uniforms, probably dates from the early 1900s as the gentlemen in the middle (with the baton) is William Thiselton-Dyer, Director of Kew from 1885 to 1908, who gave himself the additional title of ‘Inspector’ of the Kew constables.

Royal Botanic Gardens Constabulary, c. early 20th century. Photograph RBG, Kew

According to Kew's Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information No. 3 of 1929, it's acknowledged that Sir William was responsible for the conversion of the uniformed attendants at Kew into an efficient corps of constables under a Sergeant and, since "the safety of the collections and comforts of the visitors largely depended on the efficiency and courtesy of this body of men", the discipline he introduced greatly added to their effectiveness.

William Thiselton-Dyer, Director of Kew in his constable's uniform, which he would wear when making his official rounds of the garden. Photograph RBG, Kew.

Of course, private gardens also suffer from plant thefts. One of the most often repeated stories about the famous Edwardian horticulturist, Miss Willmott of Warley Place in Essex, and generally used to illustrate her eccentricity, is that in addition to employing a night watchman, she instructed her Head of Gardens to booby-trap her precious daffodils (some of which can be seen below in Sir Alfred Parsons' painting) by fixing tripwires in the meadows where they grew. These wires would “set off air guns and frighten the life out of anyone hoping to pick a bunch surreptitiously”, as well as alerting the watchman.

Although often considered as just a ‘story’, a first-hand account of these elaborate precautions was published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle of America in April 1920 by Montague Free, a gardener who had worked at Warley Place between 1906 and 1908. After his time at Warley, Free worked at Kew for several years before emigrating to the US where he rose through the gardening ranks to become Head Gardener at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, New York and a notable garden writer.

Free's article, written in praise of flowering spring bulbs grown in grass, also pointed out that this style of gardening was easier to accomplish in private estates than in public ones, as there was less likelihood of theft and vandalism – problems he encountered regularly at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Although he acknowledged that "flowering material" in private gardens was “not always immune”, and described Miss Willmott's practice of hedging the flowers around with trip wires attached to a loaded gun - pointing out that the bulb fields at Warley Place could be seen from a public road and, as London was not too far away, “it would be quite easy for persons from the wicked metropolis to come out in autos, load up with flowers, and dispose of them in Covent Garden market.” Free also mentions Kew’s own attempt to avoid such damage by employing “thirty or more constables” – so perhaps Miss Willmott wasn’t as paranoid as some writers like to think.

Warley Place by Sir Alfred Parsons c. early 20th century. Private collection

In fact, Miss Willmott had good reason to be cautious about her plants. In April 1931, a short article in a local paper, The Chelmsford Chronicle, reported that two young men were summoned to the local magistrates court for stealing a quantity of daffodils, valued at 4 shillings, from the gardens at Warley Place. Caught with armfuls of daffodils by a local police constable, they admitted to having taken them from one of the meadows at Warley Place. However, it was agreed they had committed the offence in ignorance, although the Chairman of the court warned that “it was a great nuisance that the flowers which decorated the countryside should be torn up by hordes of people.” The magistrate seems to have missed the point that these daffodils would have been planted by Miss Willmott and her army of gardeners (she was rightly famous for planting out spring-flowering bulbs in grass in the hundreds), and some of the narcissus growing in her meadows would have been specialised or new varieties rather than the more common ones.

A modern-day Kew constable. Photograph RBG, Kew

Back at Kew, the authorities must have thought the constables worth the cost as they are still there today. Now named the Kew Constabulary, by 2010 the constables only numbered 17 making it one of the smallest police forces in the world. Today, there are just 8. While theoretically possessing the same powers as members of the Metropolitan Police, such powers are rarely used. When someone is caught with a bag or backpack full of plants (which happens more often than we’d like to think), the standard punishment is to take the plants back, the culprit is photographed, so they can be more easily spotted if they decide to try again, which they often do, and then escorted off the premises. The Kew Constabulary generally perform a patrol and ranger service – with no gardening work, their main aim being to patrol Kew’s gardens and maintain its tranquil atmosphere. At night, the gardens are still patrolled by a Metropolitan Police officer.

Despite the constables, Kew still has problems of theft and vandalism. In answer to a Freedom of Information request in 2018, Kew revealed details of plant thefts recorded between 2012 and 2017 by the constables. A total of 39 thefts are listed, including the theft of the rare water lily – the only one reported to the Metropolitan Police and investigated, although no-one has ever been prosecuted. Other thefts listed include “unusual cycads from the Palm House” (in which there is, apparently, an international criminal trade - some species commanding up to £6,000 each); “plant and cuttings from the Alpine House” and, in 2015, “12 freezer bags of various carefully packaged seed”. And these thefts are only the more significant ones noticed by staff. Whether such thefts were committed by over-zealous gardeners or by more determined professional thieves is not recorded, and probably unknown.

RBG, Kew Plant Thefts 2010-2017. Freedom of Information request, 2018

One of the main aims of organisations such as Kew is to ensure that when rare species are eventually propagated to a level where they can be sold commercially, the profits are shared with their home countries in order to help rebuild habitats. Known as ‘benefit sharing’, this is carried out under the international convention on biodiversity. As a more measured newspaper article about the theft published in The Guardian in October 2014 pointed out, it's difficult to distinguish plant ‘crime’ from ‘botany’. In the past, plant-hunters working for RBG, Kew (and for the benefit of the British Empire) such as Robert Fortune, smuggled tea plants out of China allowing the UK to establish tea plantations in India. Fortune also spent several years travelling the world uprooting tens of thousands of plants to send back to Kew. While another Kew collector, Henry Wickham, was paid to smuggle thousands of rubber seeds from the Amazonian rainforest to establish rubber plantations in Singapore and Malaysia. In Brazil, Wickham was known as the ‘prince of thieves’ and ‘executioner of the Amazon’ yet, in 1920, he was knighted by George V for services to the rubber industry. We can tell ourselves that we don't do things like that now, but the damage to such host countries has been done.*

Today, Nick Johnson, the Princess of Wales Conservatory Manager, freely admits that Kew is literally 'poacher turned gamekeeper', and he is aware of the irony of Kew's recent exhibition celebrating 19th century plant-hunters, while calling the police when someone stole a small, rather insignificant looking waterlily - albeit a rare one. But as he told The Guardian, "institutions such as Kew have no choice as more and more plants around the world become endangered, invasive and alien species spread, and national governments increasingly try to control intellectual property and revenue streams from their wildlife". Kew also acknowledges that, as the sharing of such plants involves extensive bureaucracy and permits under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), it's not surprising that ‘collectors’ often decide to take matters into their own hands to obtain a rare specimen.

Plant crime today is generally considered to fall into 3 separate categories – the casual picking of wildflowers (often done in ignorance it must be said); large-scale theft of popular nursery plants; and the targeting of particular plants by obsessive collectors. And it's this last category that can cause the most damage, as it's mostly the rare and therefore potentially financially rewarding that attract collectors' attention. One sad example noted in the newspaper article reports the discovery in 2000 of a hybrid spleenwort fern in Staffordshire – the first sighting in the UK for more than a century. Within 2 weeks it was uprooted and gone. And while researching this blog, I was shocked by the amount of videos on YouTube - often from home security cameras, of people blatantly digging up plants, taking pots of plants from front and back gardens, as well as taking plants or vandalizing publicly planted areas - and even cemeteries.

Sadly, it's difficult to solve plant theft and trying to 'police' the world's plants is virtually impossible with almost 400,000 species known (and new ones being discovered all the time), of which 30,000 are already listed under CITES. With today's major threats to the environment, and extensive habitat destruction across the globe, even Kew acknowledges that it's difficult to convey to the general public how plant thefts really matter, and has resigned itself to never knowing who took their precious waterlily - the local police closing their investigation in a matter of weeks. After such a theft, at Kew the question of the installation of CCTV in the grounds and glasshouses almost always arises but, so far, continues to be dismissed as an expensive and dispiriting exercise.

Although the plant theft business is much smaller than that for illegal timber and animals, both the Sec Gen of CITES and the Head of the UK's National Wildlife Crime Unit (a small unit dealing mostly with the illegal trade in animals), acknowledge that the theft at Kew was probably the beginning of an upward trend in organised plant theft.

One hundred years ago at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, Montague Free hoped that the general public would eventually develop “a greater feeling of respect for the beauties in them, and not feel that their happiness is incomplete unless they wantonly destroy or steal”. Whilst the majority of people visit gardens to appreciate their beauty, it’s sad to know that some only see them as opportunities to steal for profit – or thoughtlessly to vandalise.

On a more positive note, the majority of people do visit gardens purely to enjoy them. Of course, there may still be little old ladies with voluminous handbags happy to take a cutting or two, so perhaps all gardens should booby-trap their plants?

And we also need to be mindful of our own plants and gardens. In January 2019, a group of gnomes protested outside City Hall in London about the increasing incidences of thefts from private gardens. Research commissioned by the organisers (not surprisingly the makers of a smart security gadget for the home!), found that 4 in 10 homeowners had had items including plants, plant pots, solar lights, gardening equipment - and even gnomes themselves, stolen from their gardens. The protesting gnomes called upon homeowners to do more to protect their gardens - and you only need to look up 'plant thefts' on YouTube to see that they have a point.

Gnomes protesting in London in January 2019

* Plant-hunters were, of course, also extensively employed by institutions other than RBG, Kew including other botanic gardens, plant nurseries, and private collectors.

435 views3 comments

3 comentarios

08 ene 2021

WoW I had no idea

Love this blog x thank you Paula

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John Cannell
John Cannell
06 ene 2021

Shame so many people are like that. I loved the notice though. To scare rooks, don't they hang up dead ones nearby? No, perhaps that's a bit too far.....

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06 ene 2021

What a depressing thought that Kew has to keep constables even today. Thank you for this, Paula, it's something we don't even think about - until it happens to us...

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