Craig Pittman is an award-winning journalist who writes about environmental issues for Florida’s largest newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times. He is the author of Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World’s Most Beautiful Orchid, making him the perfect person to weigh in on the latest botanical scandal, this time across the pond: the theft of an extremely rare water lily from Kew Gardens.
The annals of wildlife crime are rife with tales of the unusual: Boa constrictors stuffed with cocaine. An undercover agent masquerading as a black market gorilla. Schemes to smuggle in everything from butterflies to narwhal tusks to rare orchids.
Now we have a new one to add to the files.
The crime occurred in a most palatial setting: the Royal Botanical Gardens Kew, a.k.a. Kew Gardens, in London. Created in 1759, Kew holds the world’s largest collection of living plants – some 30,000 different kinds – plus 7 million preserved plant specimens in its herbarium.
Some of Kew’s holdings are rare and endangered, but none more so than the Nymphaea thermarum, a plant the staff dubbed the “pygmy Rwandan water lily” because it was the smallest one in the world, with a delicate white bloom about as big as your fingernail.
In the wild, it grew in only one spot in Rwanda, in the damp mud created by the overflow of a hot spring where the water had cooled down to about 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius).
But then, in 2008, the water from the spring was diverted for a local laundry, and the entire species was obliterated. Fortunately the German botanist who had discovered the lily in 1985, Eberhard Fischer, had brought a few of them home to Bonn. He was able to keep them alive there but unable to make them flower or reproduce. However, in 2010 a Kew botanist, Carlos Magdalena, figured out the secret: because the spring’s levels varied, the plant was sometimes exposed to air rather than remaining in water all the time. Soon Kew had dozens of the little lilies blooming.
Then, last month, one of them disappeared — “wrenched or dug out of its shallow pond in the Prince of Wales Conservatory,” the Daily Mail reported. The staff summoned police but there’s little for them to go on.
Although Kew maintains a system of closed-circuit cameras, none of them were aimed toward the lilies. Thus there are no video or still images of the thief. Given the tininess of the loot, the getaway was a snap — just tuck the purloined plant in a pocket and stroll toward the exit. And forget about dusting for fingerprints among the flowerbeds.
Who would do such a thing? Magdalena told the Telegraph that he’s got a good idea: “There are amateur growers who are totally obsessed with cultivating these rare plants. They will go to incredible lengths to get them – pay huge amounts of money, or put themselves at risk by going to dangerous locations in dodgy countries, or just steal them. And, of course, there are people who might hire someone to do it.”
As the Scientific American noted, it’s hard to gauge just how big a loss this might be, but it’s pretty big: “Kew considers the stolen lily to be ‘priceless’ and vital to the conservation of the species.”
This is not Kew’s first case of someone stealing an exhibit, although officials there insist it’s a rare occurrence. They have appealed to the public for help with this one but, as of February, police still have not figured out who the lily-lifter might be, according to gardens spokesman Youki Crump.
The one piece of good news is that it’s not the last one left.
“We currently have 29 waterlilies (used to be 30) left on display and approximately 100 behind the scenes,” Crump said in an e-mail.