Pricey plants pilfered

Eric Larson shows off the plants in the Marsh Botanic Garden.
Eric Larson shows off the plants in the Marsh Botanic Garden. Photo by Lindsay Gellman.

David Garinger knew something was awry as soon as he arrived at Yale’s Marsh Botanic Garden on the morning of Sept. 24.

The large, humid Greenhouse No. 2, which is part of the complex located near the Yale Divinity School, houses a panoply of different plants, some hanging from the roof, others protruding into the aisles. Immediately upon entering, Garinger — the curator of greenhouse plant collections at the Garden — noticed a large trash can was missing, and the trash inside it had been dumped on the floor. Confused, Garinger looked around and noticed the empty spaces usually occupied by 10 valuable desert cacti.

Marsh Botanic Garden manager Eric Larson examines ripening bananas in one of the Garden’s greenhouses.
Marsh Botanic Garden manager Eric Larson examines ripening bananas in one of the Garden’s greenhouses.
Larson, the manager of the Marsh Botanic Garden, holds up a bright pink flower.
Larson, the manager of the Marsh Botanic Garden, holds up a bright pink flower.

They must have been stolen, he realized.

“They’re my kids,” Garinger said of the stolen plants. He said he felt “violated.”

Eric Larson, the manager of the Garden, said the stolen cacti were among the most valuable plants in the Garden’s collection. Eight of the plants were of the genus conophytum — quarter-sized clusters of cacti — and were located in one small tray, he said. Larson estimated that the tray of conophytum plants was worth between $450 and $500. Two larger individually potted desert plants were also stolen, one of the genus trichocaulon and the other of the genus opuntia — each worth approximately $100, he said.

Garinger notified Larson, who called the Yale Police and filed a police report. Larson said four or five officers soon arrived on the scene, questioning the Garden staff and dusting for fingerprints.

Now, a month after the theft, the plants still have not been recovered. YPD spokesman Sgt. Steven Woznyk said the theft is still under investigation. But it’s not the first time the Garden have been subject to theft: in 2007, burglars stole roughly $18,000 worth of sculptures on view inside the greenhouses at the time.

Larson said he doubted the stolen plants were still alive, since they require intensive care and specific growing conditions such as highly controlled water levels.

“It’s like kidnapping a kid who needs insulin,” he said.

DISCOVERY

After Garinger discovered the missing plants, he and Larson walked around the workplace, which had been declared a crime scene, attempting to reconstruct what had happened.

Walking through the center aisle of the greenhouse to the back, Garinger noticed that a faux-bamboo fountain had been toppled over, he said. When he arrived at the back door of the greenhouse, he saw that one of the back door’s plexiglass panes had been removed, allowing the burglar to reach through and unlock the door from the inside.

“I think it threw him that the pane wasn’t glass [that could be easily shattered],” Larson said. “He had to work harder.”

Larson said the plexiglass door pane cost about $275 to repair.

Because the plants have sharp needles, the perpetrator most likely used the trash can to transport the cacti out of the greenhouse to his vehicle, Larson said.

The perpetrator, Garinger said, left untouched an entire display of less valuable desert plants near the back door through which he or she must have entered.

“They obviously knew what they were looking for,” Larson said.

Although the greenhouse itself was locked, Larson said the large metal gate to the Garden was left unlocked the night of the theft.

In previous years, Larson said, the Yale Police locked the gate every night. But more recently, locking the gate had been causing difficulties for staff because they would accidentally lock themselves in, Larson said; so the staff stopped locking the gate.

The only item the burglar left behind was a triple-extra-large, black T-shirt on top of a pile of soil near the other desert plants, Garinger said. The police took the shirt as evidence, he said.

WHODUNIT?

In the weeks after the burglary, Garinger and Larson have tried to piece together the clues to see who may have stolen the plants.

Garinger said he has reflected on the Garden’s open visitor policy and began to question the intent of non-Yale visitors to the Garden. Larson said he tries to keep an informal record of visitors to the Garden by asking for their e-mail addresses and, in return, sending them his “plant of the week” newsletter.

Thinking back to the days before the burglary, Marsh horticulturalist Chris Bolick said he noticed an unidentified man peering into Greenhouse No. 2 around Sept. 21, while Bolick was taking measurements for a self-guided audio tour he was creating for the Garden.

He described the visitor as a “generic-looking” white male wearing a blue T-shirt who looked to be in his late 20s. The man claimed he worked at the University, Bolick said, but did not present identification.

Bolick invited the man inside Greenhouse No. 2 and gave him an impromptu tour, which included the valuable desert plants.

“When I showed him the cacti room, he said, ‘Oh! My mother loves cactus! She used to have a great cactus collection,’ ” Bolick said.

Bolick said the visitor introduced himself at the end of the visit, but Bolick forgot his name.

Although the encounter was suspicious, Bolick acknowledged that the short interval between the visit and the theft might have been a “wild coincidence.” In retrospect, Larson said he believes this visitor was scouting for the valuable plants and may have either arranged to have them stolen or returned to take them himself two days later.

“Of course, we have no proof of this,” Larson said.

Joe Florentine, chair of the Association of Education and Research Greenhouse Curators, a national organization of plant facility administrators and staff, said he thinks the Marsh break-in was “obviously [committed by] someone with a horticultural background.”

He said the average person without horticultural knowledge would be more likely steal a plant for its aesthetic beauty, rather than for its monetary value.

SECURITY

While the police have not identified a suspect, the loss still stings for the Garden staff.

“[Garinger] has been here 28 years,” Larson said. “The burglary really hit him in a personal place. I’m amazed at how well he took it.”

Larson and Garinger agreed the plants would be extremely difficult to replace because they are so rare, and they said the Garden staff plans to increase security measures in response to the break-in.

Larson said one of the larger plants stolen — of the genus opuntia — came to the Garden from the University of Connecticut; such sharing of plants between institutions is a customary practice, said UConn’s plant growth facilities manager, Clinton Morse. Despite the recent break-in at Marsh, Morse said he intends to continue to trade plants with Yale.

“Short of putting a chain-linked, barbed-wire fence around the entire facility — which would make it look like a prison — there’s not much [greenhouse staff] can do in the way of security,” Morse said. It has been at least 10 years since the last substantial theft occurred at a UConn greenhouse facility, he said.

Tim Nelson, the director of the Marsh Garden, underscored the importance of protecting the Garden’s plant specimens. He said he hopes the Garden’s security will one day be on par with that of a museum. Many greenhouses, Florentine added, have upgraded to swipe-key systems and have installed security cameras.

When asked whether there have been improvements to security since the break-in, Larson joked in an e-mail that the Garden staff have “posted guard dogs, installed land mines and pongee sticks, and put a bucket of water on top of the door to forestall further unauthorized entries.”

In all seriousness, Larson said he would like to install four security cameras, which would be dispersed throughout the Marsh grounds, so that there would be a video record of “license plates, car make and facial features” of alleged burglars. Larson said the Garden does not currently have the budget for cameras due to the economic recession.

Since their Sept. 24 investigation, the Yale Police have made no effort to recover the purloined plants, Larson said. But since the break-in, he added, police drive by the Garden several times each night and often sit in parked cars just outside the gate.

“I know [stolen plants] are on the low end of police’s priority list,” Garinger said. He added that he understood the police “have their hands full” with keeping New Haven safe for residents.

But Larson said the Garden could benefit from further advice from the Yale Police on how to ensure the security of the collections. A better stream of funding would help replace plants in the event that they are stolen, he added.

Still, Garinger waxed philosophical when considering a budgetary allowance for offsetting potential future break-ins.

“How do you put a price on something you can’t replace?” he said.

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