Prowlers And Perennials

In light of this year’s theft of an ultra-rare water lily from London’s Kew Gardens, Sam Knight examines the world of horticultural lawlessness:

One big problem with plant crime is that it is so difficult to distinguish from the act of botany itself. Many of those who stand tallest in the annals of plant science – Joseph Dalton Hooker (Kew’s most celebrated director), André Michaux (who introduced 5,000 trees to France), Robert Fortune (who brought tea out of China) – spent years traveling the world and uprooting tens of thousands of plants that they liked the look of. …

Even the acts that were recognized at the time as larcenous have rarely been remembered that way. The Dutch tulip industry was more or less founded on the repeated theft of bulbs from the gardens of Carolus Clusius, a botanist in Leiden, in the 1590s. In the summer of 1876, Kew paid £700 to Henry Wickham for thousands of rubber seeds that he smuggled out of the Amazonian rainforest and were subsequently planted in Singapore and Malaysia. In Brazil, Wickham became known as the príncipe dos ladrões (prince of thieves) and the carrasco do amazonas (executioner of the Amazon). In 1920, he was knighted by George V for services to the rubber industry.

But while plant theft is now decidedly against the law, its incidence seems likely to grow:

In this late, degraded chapter in our planet’s conservation, it is possible to see plant theft as part of a general, depressing quickening: as more plants become endangered, because their habitats are destroyed, they become more desirable to collectors, because they are rare, and so on. Around 20% of the world’s 380,000 plant species are now thought to be threatened by extinction, the same proportion as for mammals. (The only order of life in more trouble are the amphibians). We treasure things in the last second before the lights go out. That is certainly the case with the Nymphaea thermarum.

Update from a reader:

Here is a water lily theft story with a happy ending.