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Springtime in New York: Rhododendron in Chains

May 24, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ Nocturnal rustlers are forcing the city’s gardeners to chain bushes together, to anchor trees to buried cinder blocks, to plant flowers so bland nobody wants to steal them.

It’s gotten to the point where police are staking out gardens.

″If I caught these people I personally would come down on their backs and bite them to death,″ Betsy Gotbaum, the parks commissioner, said Thursday. ″They’re really creeps.″

Some are crack addicts or other desperate people who steal flowers and sell them on the street. But most appear to be landscapers who use the plants themselves or thieves who know exactly what to steal, how to steal it and where to fence it.

Whoever they are, there seem to be more and more of them.

-Last summer, police spent several nights staking out Central Park’s Conservatory Garden after more than 100 perennials and shrubs were stolen. No one was caught, but the thievery stopped.

-Several hundred begonias worth about $3 each were stolen last summer from the median strip running down the middle of Park Avenue, and 3,000 were stolen the summer before that. Wheelbarrow tracks have been found in the dirt.

-On the Upper East Side, someone reached through an iron fence around a Marymount College building and walked off with several boxwoods. Even the lowly ivy plant is regularly stolen from a tree-belt garden on 62nd Street.

No plant out in public seems safe, particularly the pair of small firs that flank the front door of columnist William F. Buckley’s maisonette.

Buckley’s wife, Pat, says she first put the trees in huge stone urns, which were stolen - twice. Next she cemented the urns to the sidewalk, and awoke one morning to find someone had sawed them off at the base. Then she switched to square wooden tubs and cemented them to the sidewalk. That was fine with the thieves, who dug up the trees and left the tubs.

But New Yorkers’ vaunted ability to cope is giving rise to what The New York Times calls ″the new science of floral bondage, which is still in the freewheeling experimental stage.″

Landscapers have begun to plant root balls under wire lattices and cable six-foot trees to underground cinder blocks and duckbill anchors - devices that snap open after burial. The roots and lower trunks of a growing number of bushes and small trees are strewn with chain or barbed wire.

″You can cover the barbed wire with hay or something, or leave it exposed around the stem as a deterrent,″ Kim Mulcahy, the inventor of the technique, told the Times.

There are more subtle approaches. One apartment building has replaced some lovely but highly portable flowering bushes with the prickly pyracantha. And Mrs. Buckley’s door is currently flanked by a new pair of firs - ″scraggly things surrounded by rather dreadful looking ivy″ - that it is hoped no one will want to steal.

The most sophisticated experiment in passive resistance to plant rustling is taking place on Park Avenue.

Traditionally the median strip was planted with an equal number of white, pink and red begonias; color groups alternated by block. As theft increased, however, a disproportionate number of pinks and reds disappeared, according to Margaret Ternes, director of the Park Avenue Planting Project.

After 3,000 pinks and reds disappeared two years ago, Ms. Ternes decided last summer that a majority of the begonias planted would be white, which ″most people don’t find as interesting.″ Not a single white was stolen, and theft dropped by a factor of 10.

But Ms. Ternes was not sure if theft dropped because most of the flowers were white, or because the mix for the first time favored one color. So next month, in what she calls a potentially costly ″experiment in theft prevention through color,″ the avenue will be planted almost entirely with red begonias.

″I’m risking the reds to see how many are stolen,″ said Ms. Ternes. ″We’re going to refine this business.″

However disturbing, plant rustling is no surprise in a city that already has lost such trappings of civilization as subway station bathrooms, evening walks in Central Park and copper gutters.

Public greenery, argued Ms. Ternes, ″is a quality of life issue,″ and its loss is ″part of the disintegration of the social fabric.″

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