The thieves struck at night and knew just what they were after. In minutes, they ripped two plants from the lavish landscaping at a home in this Los Angeles suburb, then fled when the homeowner woke up and turned on a porch light. Total haul: $3,500.
The thieves were after cycads, palmlike plants so prized that a rare specimen can fetch $20,000 or more on the international black market. Some species have been around since the time of the dinosaurs but are now close to extinction.
The plants have been targeted in a wave of thefts in California and Florida, provoking anger and a little paranoia among collectors and staff at botanical gardens.
"No one talks about what they have anymore because they are just afraid," said Tom Broome, a nursery owner in Polk City, Fla., and president of the Cycad Society. The organization, with 500 members in 20 countries, promotes efforts to save the plants.
Some nurseries and gardens have added security, but homes are vulnerable. The thieves who struck in the Orange County city of Costa Mesa only had to enter the front yard to get the pair of cycads from a collection of some 50 species on the property.
One, valued at $2,000, was an obvious target: a 4-foot-tall cycad (pronounced 'sigh-cad') from southern Mexico with a knobby, barrel-shaped trunk that resembled a giant pineapple with emerald frond-like leaves.
The owner doesn't want his name disclosed because he fears thieves will return, especially for an African specimen that he hopes will finance a year of college for one of his kids. "If someone found out I had it here they'd do anything to get it," he said.
Nearly everyone involved with cycads has a story of theft. One nursery owner in the San Diego area, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said he's been hit twice in the past 18 months and has had to add $50,000 worth of security.
In September, thieves broke into the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Fla., taking advantage of the evacuation for Hurricane Frances, and stole more than 30 cycads. "In the black market, some species of cycads are like a fine piece of art — like a Picasso," garden spokeswoman Nannette Zapata said at the time.
It's gotten bad enough that some have given up on the plants, which despite their palmlike appearance are more closely related to pine trees.
"You're just growing them up for someone else to steal and make a profit," laments Arthur Gibson, director of a botanical garden at the University of California, Los Angeles, which stopped acquiring cycads after someone pilfered part of its collection. "It's really depressing."
Hundreds of species
There are about 300 species of cycad, and most are threatened with extinction. They are generally tropical or subtropical — with some of the most coveted found in southern Africa, Australia and South America.
Imports are restricted under an international treaty. Some species are essentially priceless and, if stolen, couldn't be displayed.
"It would be like having a stolen Picasso. Everybody would know that plant," said Julian Duval, executive director of Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas, which locked its most precious cycads in a greenhouse after a theft nearly two years ago.
Mike Maunder, director of Florida's Fairchild garden, suspects that thieves may be stealing to fill orders for an international black market most active in supplying collectors in the United States, Mexico, the Bahamas and South Africa.
"There are people who want to collect the rarest of the rare, and they are willing to support an illegal market so they can get the stuff that they ordinarily wouldn't be able to get," he said.
"Cycads are just the hot, trendy plant right now," said Jason Kubrock, a horticulturist at Quail Botanical Gardens.
Quail now features security cameras, guards and regular patrols by the sheriff's department.
And in Costa Mesa, the private collector has moved his most prized plants out of sidewalk view and is much more cautious about showing off his yard.
"It's a shame, because I'm in it for the beauty of the plants," he said.