Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, it is an offence to: “intentionally uproot any wild plant without permission of the owner of the land”. There are stringent international laws in place to help prevent the movement of particular plants and flowers such as orchids, without having special certification in place. The hope with these laws is to prevent thieves picking these plants and flowers to extinction.
The unfortunate rise in plant thefts from botanical gardens has lead to growth of CCTV usage in some of the world’s most prestigious gardens. With thieves increasingly targeting rare and valuable plants, the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh and Kew, and the Wisley garden of the Royal Horticultural Society have all taken on extra security and installed additional CCTV.
Common targets include Asian and South American orchids and snowdrops such as the Galanthus Mighty Atom. With orchids being stolen on demand being worth several hundreds of pounds and single snowdrops up to one hundred, it is easy to see why our botanic gardens are such a target for thieves.
“People know exactly what they’re stealing. They are knowledgeable. They are undoubtedly collectors which is quite disappointing, sad, frustrating and annoying.”
David Knott, curator at RBG Edinburgh
Public botanic gardens such as RHS Wisley, RBG Edinburgh, and RBG Kew, are huge open spaces and cannot be completely covered by security. The rise of plant thefts and the plants being stolen indicate that these thefts are not generally opportunistic, but planned and carried out by people with extensive plant knowledge. This is such a shame for the horticultural community as it is people within who are stealing from the communities they are part of. One of the main issues that gardens are finding when it comes to combatting these thefts is that it is so easy to hide a small plant or cutting when exiting the grounds and the thefts are not instantly observed.
Matthew Pottage from RHS Wisley is quoted in Horticulture Weekly:
“The theft of plants at Wisley has increased in frequency over the past three years to around 10-15 plants a year … it used to be just the odd plant, but has now become a serious concern”
As with many things in life, when something becomes rare it becomes more desirable. At the moment there are over 30,000 plants that are listed on the endangered list, many of these could well make several thousand pounds on the black market. A Nymphaea thermarum, the world’s smallest water lily, was stolen from RBG Kew in 2014. At smaller than a pound coin, the water lily that is no-longer seen in the wild has not been relocated. Kew has responded to this and other thefts with the statement: “We regard any theft as a serious matter. We have recently put in place additional electronic surveillance to augment the existing coverage.”
What can we as plant lovers do to help prevent these thefts?
Botanic gardens and nurseries are growing and cultivating these plants for everyone to enjoy and to ensure the species’ survival. We as a horticultural community need to work together to report anything suspicious that we see or suspect.