Stealing cuttings

supermowglee(U.K.)December 28, 2013

Hello everyone, it's been a long time since I've posted here.
I recently caught a young man in the glasshouse I run at Kew stealing cuttings and plants. He had a backpack full of them. When questioned, he said he was going to root them and then sell them on the internet. Some of the plants he had stolen were CITES 1 listed and very, very rare.
I have some questions to put to you all - How deeply do you scrutinise the provenance of the plants you buy on the net? Would you steal a cutting from a botanic garden? What lengths would you go to in order to get that 'must have' plant?
I'm just curious, no anger here...

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squirrellypete(z7b AL)

I don't buy many plants online. But when I do I doubt I would ever give thought to the origin of the plants I do purchase. It would never even cross my mind that the plants could have been created from illegally obtained cuttings. Not only is stealing from a botanical garden illegal, but those who run it spend a great deal of time, care and money to maintain those gardens, and I have a great deal of respect for that. I wouldn't want someone coming into my yard and taking cuttings from my plants I've worked hard to grow and maintain without asking me.

That being said, I probably would not have a problem taking cuttings from plants on abandoned or foreclosed properties that weren't being tended to. Yes I know, that would also be illegal.

Example: my husband's Uncle abandoned his house next door and moved out of state when he could no longer pay his mortgage. The bank foreclosed, and that property has sat there abandoned for YEARS, and getting more run-down and overgrown by the day. He had grapes and muscadines planted in his back yard and I am very tempted to go and dig some up or take cuttings this year. Illegal? Yes, it's not my property, it belongs to the bank. Given the circumstances do I care? Not really. And I'm positive nobody else will either. The property looks hideous, the bank does not come by to maintain it.

    Bookmark   December 28, 2013 at 7:47PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

I sure hope you were able to prosecute him. I don't know what the legal process would be over there, but, here in the US, I bet it would be an uphill climb to even get him prosecuted, not to mention getting any restitution.

I doubt that I would ever be in the position to buy plant material from someone like your thief. Everything that I purchase is from reputable dealers. I usually don't buy plants from ebay or anywhere like that.

If you have time, tell us more of the story. I think it would be interesting. I have considered what I would do if someone tried to steal plants from my garden. I will eventually probably face that issue, and I'm not looking forward to it.

    Bookmark   December 28, 2013 at 8:34PM
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Legal codes vary by jurisdiction, but the code of the west is universal. I vote Hang 'em High!

    Bookmark   December 29, 2013 at 6:55AM
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Thanks for replying!
As you can imagine, having one of the most diverse, comprehensive plant collections in the world has it's challenges, one of which is theives coming into the gardens and stealing plants to order for collectors. The alpine gardens get the worst of it, having thefts almost monthly! We have our own dedicated police constabulary unit here, but that still doesn't stop them from trying. Here in the Princess of Wales conservatory, its mostly cacti and succulents that go missing. In the case of the gent I caught the other day, what really annoyed me was that he had ripped a Myrmecodia off one of our trees. I had grown it from seed nearly 10 years ago when I was a nurseryman and watched it establish on it's host. To see it ripped off the tree almost brought tears to my eyes.
I think the theives are purely motivated by financial gain, there is rarely any 'passion' for the plant they are taking, which makes me wonder about the money they are selling this stuff for... If you could buy a plant that was critically endangered, very rare in cultivation, how much would you pay for it??

    Bookmark   December 29, 2013 at 7:47AM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

That would just depend on how much money I had and how rare the plant was. I have seen some plants selling on ebay that were going for absolutely absurd prices. Sometimes people will pay more on ebay for a plant than they would from a nursery (I never have fully understood the out-of-control auction mentality). At this moment, there's a Sansevieria going for $500 on ebay (and that's not even unusual!).

    Bookmark   December 29, 2013 at 5:54PM
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I have never thought of that source, multiple cuttings from gardens. I might have suspected a cutting or two to get someone started, but commercially collecting?! Thanks for the heads-up.

I do know that some outdoor collections have "official policies" against collecting even fallen seed from off the ground, but tolerate the nonegregious gleaning of fallen fruit or seeds with "a wink and a nod."

The big caution with me is not to facilitate (enable, encourage) the collection of rare plants from the wild. Orchids from Everglades and Big Cypress national reserves are perhaps the most notorious example in this region.

1 Like    Bookmark   December 30, 2013 at 8:47PM
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nil13(z21 L.A., CA (Mt. Washington))

I will admit to having picked up a few seeds from botanical gardens for my collection. I even jokingly mentioned it to the curator. I was given a very stern look then a laugh. 'Just keep it on the paths," she said. I always have. But even for that, I think you need to have a reasonable expectation of success.

Cuttings? No way. Well maybe a tiny Kalanchoe plantlet that had fallen on the table, once.

I would guess that propagating a lot of those plants for sale would help a lot of the hobbyist predation but that's not going to stop the thieves. Dang that's crazy.

    Bookmark   December 30, 2013 at 11:13PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

That brings up another thing that might be somewhat related to this thread. Are people that are given limited permission to collect things (seeds from the path, for instance) more likely or less likely to take advantage of the situation? I've had pretty much free access to various gardens, and I always try to be completely responsible about what I took. In almost all cases, I wouldn't have taken any more or less if the director of the garden was right in front of me, but I do remember one time when that kind of wasn't the case. What I got didn't impact the garden, but it was one of those things where if everybody did it, the cumulative result could be a problem.

I can, however, imagine that some people would push their way right in, so to speak, if you were to let them get a foot in the doorway. I wonder if Kew or other gardens have looked at that potential problem. I don't imagine the guy supermowglee caught had any permission to do anything at the garden except observe, but I wonder if there are situations where a little permission gets taken advantage of. And, how do you address that problem, if it is a problem?

    Bookmark   December 31, 2013 at 1:46AM
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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL(8B AL)

One of the reasons I don't buy plants on the internet is because of all of the stories about stolen plants - stolen for sale on ebay.

I would have called the police on this guy. It's theft and vandalism, plain and simple. I'm sure everyone who visits a botanic garden would like a piece of this, some of that. How long until there would be nothing to see at all? And he wants to profit from this action?

Taking something from an abandoned property, outside, is not in the same league though still technically theft, and trespassing could be a factor.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 1:04PM
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Man, and here I was wracked with guilt for debating grabbing some deadheads from daisies overgrowing the sidewalk in my neighborhood. I imagine, here, you may struggle to figure out how to prosecute, but the second they touched the wrong thing, some states have truly harsh laws regarding endangered species. You might not be able to prosecute the theft properly, but you could value each branch at market value and stack up vandalism charges enough for felony counts. I would not want to be the guy doing hard time for sea oat vandalism...

    Bookmark   January 15, 2014 at 11:37AM
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    Bookmark   January 15, 2014 at 6:35PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

Gonebananas, your link gives "Page not found".

    Bookmark   January 15, 2014 at 8:47PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)
    Bookmark   January 15, 2014 at 8:50PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

Maybe Kew should consider armed guards with shoot-to-kill orders. After being photographed for the nightly news, the perp could be ground for use as fertilizer. I'd say that would have a positive impact on the prevention of future thefts.

    Bookmark   January 15, 2014 at 8:58PM
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    Bookmark   January 15, 2014 at 9:12PM
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I'd have a lot more problem with this if more botanical gardens offered rooted cuttings for sale. I think places that purport to be educational institutions/stewards of these plant species should be trying to spread the species as widely as possible.

I kind of look at it as similar to aquariums throwing out coral fragments/cuttings because the AZA won't allow them to fall into the hands of non-accredited institutions.

That being said, taking tons of cuttings is a problem. And people just vandalizing things is clearly wrong.

    Bookmark   January 16, 2014 at 11:35PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)


Did you actually read the stories????? Do you really understand what's going on?????

Are you claiming that Kew should be selling or giving out cuttings of Nymphaea thermarum? Cause if you are, you have zero understanding of the situation! Then again, maybe you are just joking and I don't get your humor?

    Bookmark   January 17, 2014 at 12:57AM
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I wasn't referring specificanlly to the Kew.

I was saying that everyone would be better off if Botanical Gardens spent money trying to propogate things rather than preventing people from taking cuttings.

If cuttings/prunings were cheaply available, there'd be less stealing.

    Bookmark   January 17, 2014 at 1:38AM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

I guess you could say the same about Rembrandts, but I doubt the Smithsonian will be giving them out anytime soon. Hopefully, no one will take that as reason to start trying to steal them!

    Bookmark   January 17, 2014 at 6:25PM
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Campanula UK Z8

Joppa does have a point. Over the years, I have seen my local botanics get both greedier but also more run-down. There was a time when residents could access the gardens for free...then just once a week, then just between October to March and now, it costs us a heap of money every visit....while the gardens have gotten worse and worse. Many areas have vanished (the systematic beds, the scented gardens, the rose gardens (last tended 25 years ago...and yet this was where the famous rosarian, Graham Thomas learned his trade) and the rock gardens are seriously decayed, weed-ridden and empty.....and yet an eye-watering amount of money (4million pounds)has been spent on new buildings while the gardens are in disarray. The latest insult was the demise of ALL propagation areas - the garden now buys in a few common perennials (from a local garden centre) to sell to the public. At the same time, gardeners have been laid off and any volunteers are required to work in the ticket office, the gift shop, the cafe or showing visitors around. The sole shining light is the arboretum (and even that needs work) yet this is owned and run by the richest educational organisation in the UK. A once valued aspect of our local community has now become an expensive no-go area wholly run by a short-term group of non-gardening university bean-counters, in thrall to bio-genetic research . Sad! Even the renowned wetlands project has fallen into disrepair and the old glasshouses have been completely rebuilt (but have less than a third of the original inventory and open just 2 days a week. This is not a sign of economic recession but a sign of changed priorities as mere horticulture is downgraded to simple aesthetics while all the smart money is on GM research.

And yes, I did wander around with my seed bags, every autumn, watched and even encouraged by the benevolent head gardener and his team.

    Bookmark   January 18, 2014 at 1:32PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

"Joppa does have a point."

While I don't think this was Joppa's point, it seems to me that you are saying that because a garden is poorly managed or funded that that is a sufficient reason to steal rare plants from them? If there's any logic in that, I sure don't see it! While it drives me nuts to see things like you mentioned (potential greatness being ruined by mismanaged, at public gardens), I do not think that is a reason to plunder those places.

    Bookmark   January 18, 2014 at 11:58PM
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I don't believe in stealing (or maiming rare plants), however, if there were cuttings (aka trimmings) that were going to be disposed of, or other similar waste. I wouldn't cut the heart out of a tree/plant to take a cutting, but I might consider taking a six inch tip cutting if the plant were 60 feet tall, 30 foot broad, and bushy as a weeping willow.
I wouldn't think a minute about taking them. I know that it's technically against the law, but I also would know that I have caused no "harm" (either to the plant or the institution). I believe with rare plants that propagating them to reduce their rarity is our duty vs building a shrine where noone can touch them as they decline into their death (as will inevitably happen to EVERY living thing).

I realize this is a slippery slope, and wouldn't be something everyone can do (else the plant would be reduced to splinters). I would also know if I had the skill and place to propagate the plant...but then I have a degree in Horticulture and research quite a lot.

Obviously with regards to that waterlily, and the constant warm mud it required...I doubt the perpetrator had the proper facility to maintain the plant :(

    Bookmark   January 22, 2014 at 10:12AM
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I would never do that with plants for sale, although I did pick up some mum stems that had already broken off and were lying on the ground at the local grocery market in autumn. I did take them home and root them. I also once took a rose cutting from a rose planted at the market parking lot. It was late Autumn and I figured they would soon die back from frost. Still wrong I suppose, but I would never do that in a nursery or botanical garden.

    Bookmark   January 22, 2014 at 4:35PM
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Required criteria for when it is morally okay to take plant material:

From retail nurseries and gardens:
Does not damage the selling potential of the plant
Does not damage the health and survival of the plant
Does not damage the aesthetic value of the plant
If any of the above are not met one must:
Propagate and donate at least two new plants for every one taken to it's original location with permission from an owner

From non-retail residential and public properties, and wild or unattended land:
Does not damage the health or survival of the plant or species, and ecosystem
Does not damage the aesthetic value of the plant if in the public eye
If any of the above are not met one must:
Propagate and donate at least one new plant for every one taken to it's original location

My rule of green thumb is not to cause harm, and I'm a firm believer in The Golden Rule and win-win scenarios. I think if this criteria is followed by everyone then we can continue to prosper.

This post was edited by Evolventity on Sun, Jan 26, 14 at 23:40

    Bookmark   January 26, 2014 at 11:37PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)


There's nothing whatsoever "moral" about your strange suggestions. Not to mention, the guidelines are totally unworkable in many, if not most, of the situations you think the guidelines are meant to address. People that create their own excuses for theft often end up in jail.

Unless you are a licensed nursery (which, from various aspects of your post, I'm sure you're not), it would be illegal for a nursery owner, in most places in the US, to accept your donations to replace their stock.

For your suggestions about stealing plants from wild areas, how on Earth do you think you are capable of determining whether your vandalism would damage the health of an ecosystem? What if multiple people follow your example and the damage adds up?

Your guidelines are not based on morality, legality, or practicality. They simply won't work.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 1:31AM
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Campanula UK Z8

Fortunately, most gardeners seem to have an innate generosity. I certainly don't recall stealing anything since I invariably requested seeds (I didn't take cuttings)....I have never once been refused.
And, with millions of seeds produced, I doubt if the entire city of Cambridge rocked up with their baggies, it would make not one whit of difference to the health and continuance of the public garden....but I would imagine that the potential knock-on effect of sharing might more than balance the moral outrage you have. Are you a professional plant vendor or breeder by any chance because I am not familiar with this kind of outraged hyperbole and cries of theft at the collection of seeds from the ground or even the seed pod from a public (tax-payer subsidised) garden.....unless it is from someone who feels their bottom line might be affected somehow.

Unless you do things differently in the US, in the UK, there is a wide network of sharing, swapping and certainly offering plants, seeds or propagation material to nurseries across the country. I myself have swapped plant material and even propagated plants for several local nurseries. I am inclined to think we still practice gardening out of love and interest because not once, ever, in my whole life, have I either refused or been refused myself, any plant related material...from a single leaf for identification to entire plants, dug up and split at a moment's request. Even from profit making garden centres.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 5:53PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)


I re-read through the thread and can't figure out what you are referring to about outrage related to picking up seeds from the ground. Gonebananas mentioned a prohibition against such activity (that was largely ignored), but didn't express outrage or even concern.

The concern that some of us do have is when people steal extremely rare, valuable, and nearly irreplaceable specimens from botanical gardens (like the Kew example in the first post); when people steal someone else's property instead of just asking for a seed or a cutting; or when people remove wildflowers from natural areas (as Gonebananas mentioned), which is well known to frequently cause harm and can even lead to extinction in rare cases.

I bet most gardeners here in the US, just as well as your country, would be glad to give seeds, cuttings, or even whole plants with a simple request. Sometimes, there are instances where that is not possible, but usually gardeners are generous and give when it's possible. I personally gave well over a hundred (and maybe even double that) plants away this year, and that's not atypical. Most of the plants I gave away were extras, lost-name cultivars, or aesthetically imperfect plants but people seemed to love them just as much.

I think maybe you misread something above, or, there's part of the conversation that I'm missing. I will say this though, I would be very angry if someone tried to steal a single one of the plants that I ended up giving away. In most cases, it's not so much about the value of the plant, but about the invasion of my property and the bad intent of the thief. If I was a worker at Kew, I'd be every bit as annoyed at the person that stole the rare orchid as I would be at someone that came onto my property and stole my personal stuff.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2014 at 12:39AM
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The bottom line about taking cuttings is: YOU NEED TO ASK.

If for whatever reason you don't feel comfortable asking, or can't ask (nobody around) then you clearly shouldn't be taking anything, no matter what reasoning you come up with in your head.

The truth is that it is easy to take some cutting from a nursery or a park and act like it wasn't specified anywhere that you can't do it. But it is not a matter of whether nobody stopped you, it's a matter of whether you have a permission. If you don't , then hands off.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2014 at 3:13PM
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