CHICAGO — MaryAnne Spinner was standing on the garage-top deck of her home in Lincoln Park when she saw two men with shopping carts making their way through the alley below.
At first, she was puzzled: Why were their carts lined with little green plants?
Then she saw one of the men reach up into her neighbor's window box, casually scoop up a pansy plant, roots and all, and deposit it in the cart. A second pansy met the same fate.
"Stop!" Spinner yelled. The men just shrugged and picked up their pace, disappearing around a corner with their leafy loot.
"It was so brazen," Spinner says. "It was broad daylight — 2 o'clock in the afternoon. And it was a busy alley; cars come through there all the time."
Ah, spring. We're in that remarkable season when birds sing, sprinklers splash and plants walk.
No one tracks how many flowers, bushes and trees are dug out of the ground each year by fly-by-night landscapers, con artists looking to make a fast buck and home gardeners too lazy or stingy to pony up for their own plants.
But at Chicago-area greenhouses and garden centers, plant people tell of numerous plant thefts, some strange (the pilfered palm tree), some silly (the black-market petunias) and some just sad.
"It's sort of like stealing candy from a baby, or picking on a little old lady or someone who's disabled," Spinner said of plant theft.
"Steal hubcaps, you know? But leave flowers alone."
Red geraniums are popular targets, as are annuals in full flower and pricey ornamental grasses and canna lilies. But thieves also have been known to newly planted sod and uproot trees.
Connie Rivera, owner of City Escape garden center, said a dentist near Chicago's Ukrainian Village hired her to fill the planters outside his office. Thieves struck the first night, taking bulbs, and continued their raids until the dentist gave up on flowers and put in shrubs.
"He said, 'They're too beautiful'" to last, Rivera said.
Police departments don't compile statistics on plant thefts, and Adam Schwerner, director of natural resources for Chicago Park District, said raids on city parks are uncommon but happen.
"There have been some times when we've come up missing with annuals. Sometimes in our summer installations we will miss some palm trees," he says.
Others suspect sporadic but numerous thefts in gardens, parks and public places.
"I think it's pretty common," said Rivera, who planted 10,000 tulips on streets bordering her garden center this spring, 100 of which were stolen.
"They didn't even cherry-pick," she said. "They just took (a whole section) out."
Rivera's garden center is in a struggling neighborhood, but five or six years ago in leafy Lakeview, a large container of plants was taken from her front porch.
Spinner, a University of Illinois Extension master gardener who lives in one of a pricey neighborhood, said she has experienced about five thefts in the past eight years, including a nearly 3-foot-tall rose of Sharon bush that lasted less than a day.
Despite their tendency to inspire "What have we come to?" diatribes, plant thefts have been a fact of life in American cities for generations.
A Chicago Daily Tribune article from June 1876 reported a theft at a city park: "Rare plants and flowers were ruthlessly dug up from the hot-beds and other places, and the old gardener grew greatly annoyed, and scarcely knew how to catch the thieves," the paper said. Even after a police stakeout, 10 "splendid geraniums" went missing.
In 1901, Hyde Park was up in arms over bandits who snipped blooms from bushes, and in 1909 six newly planted trees were illegally "wrenched from the soil" near Armour School. "People of the neighborhood are incensed over the latest depredation," the Daily Tribune reported.