This time of year, the city is a glorious riot of flora: Potted plants dot Main Avenue, and public and private gardens swell with blooms.
Yet not all is rosy for pro-flower Durango residents, thanks to a thorny problem: plant theft, a criminal act that, in the last few months, has brought a couple of residents into open conflict in the streets and spurred one enraged downtown gardener to install security cameras in her flower beds.
“It’s infuriating,” Garden Club member Marsha Schuetz said. Every summer, she said, flower bandits strike the rose bushes at the Santa Rita Rose Garden, most likely working in the middle of the night with shears and a getaway car.
This summer is no different.
“It just irritates the heck out of us. They wait until they’re in full bloom, then descend and take whole bouquets – a dozen or two dozen roses at a time,” Schuetz said. “Taking that many in the cloak of darkness; it’s planned, although you don’t know whether they’re eco-terrorists or taking them for a wedding.”
Durango Police Department spokesman Lt. Ray Shupe said plant-stealing is infrequent in Durango, and mostly, such thefts are misdemeanors because the damages aren’t monetarily significant.
But victims of plant theft say the emotional impact of the crime is outsized, experienced not as a financial loss but a personal one. Most are left to speculate about thieves’ baffling motivations.
“Why would someone do that?” Shuetz asked.
Durango Botanical Society member Cindy Smart said though Durango’s gardening world can be high stakes, she doubted anyone would steal flowers out of garden-envy.
“Maybe it’s greed,” she said.
In fact, this summer, the owner of one residential garden in downtown Durango told Durango police that she saw someone leave her property in the middle of the night holding a box that she estimates contained $240 of her looted flowers then get “into a white truck with lettering on the door.”
According to police reports, it was the second time burglars had targeted that property in two years. The victim is installing security cameras, so she refused to be identified.
“This was a professional job,” she said.
Yet Diana Wilkening, owner of Botanical Concepts Garden Center, said Durango does not have a black market for stolen plants. She said it would be “extremely risky” to flog them to Durango’s few nurseries, where workers can easily spot hot vegetation.
Based on police calls, plant thefts don’t conform to a single, over-arching pattern. Sometimes, the bounty is shrubs; other times, it is flowers.
In March 2013, when someone brazenly swiped flowers from the Original Durango Dawg House, the business, which overlooks the well-lit intersection of Main Avenue and College Drive, caught the opportunistic perpetrator absconding with a potted plant on video.
So far this summer, police have received two reports of plant theft, one from south City Market, the other from a Durango resident,” Shupe said.
“It’s not very prevalent – I don’t think we’re seeing a trend,” Shupe said.
But victims of plant theft interviewed by The Durango Herald said they never reported the crime to law enforcement. Shuetz said the Botanical Society volunteer gardeners did not call police about the beheaded roses. “What can they do? You can’t shame people with no shame,” she said.
Last week, Durango resident Kristen Smith – who loves the flowers that grow in the city lot across from her apartment at the Florida Road roundabout – caught two green-thumbed robbers red-handed on her daily commute into town.
“This lady was carrying a newspaper bag with an iris that had been dug up from the root, and her male companion was carrying a trowel,” Smith said.
Incensed, she confronted the couple, who she thinks later returned the iris, disgraced.
“It’s a terrible crime. I just don’t know why someone would do that. But I didn’t call the cops,” Smith said.
Carolyn Bowra, executive director of the Animas Museum, said almost two years ago, staff workers were “horrified” when they went to water the plants and discovered that an entire rose bush that had recently been donated to the museum had disappeared – apparently snatched in the night.
“We’re a nonprofit, for crying in the sink. Volunteers tend our gardens, and when there’s plant-napping, their generous good work is violated,” she said.
Though still angry about the boosted rose bush, at the time, Bowra didn’t feel able to report the theft to the police.
“I didn’t want to be that crazy lady who calls 911 and says, ‘Somebody stole my bush, but I don’t know when.’”
Victims of plant-theft attribute their reluctance to report the crime to various factors, both spiritual and practical, including sudden loss of faith that justice can ever be done in a world where flowers go missing and skepticism that the police will be able to do anything about it.
Durango police’s Shupe said plant thefts are indeed “hard crimes to solve.” Unless the thief is caught in the act, most plant-theft investigations go cold.
The Herald discovered only one instance of plant theft in recent years that ended in the thief’s apprehension. In October 2013, the Durango Police Department ticketed one woman for malicious injury to property after a witness spotted her helping herself to flowers at Mercy Regional Medical Center, damaging six plants valued at about $20 a piece.
According to the police report, when confronted, the woman told police, “I was just picking a few flowers.”
An earlier version of this article erred in attributing a comment to Diana Wilkening, owner of Botanical Concepts Garden Center. She did not say there is no “black-dahlia” market in Durango.