Garden theft: Pots of gold

The theft of the world's smallest water lily from Kew Gardens last week might seem like a tiny matter but, says Tom Bawden, the market in stolen plants is growing

The police officer investigating the theft of the world's smallest water lily from Kew Gardens admits she has her work cut out finding the culprit for what seems, on the surface, to be a rather esoteric crime. The tiny Nymphaea thermarum lily, which is extinct in the wild, has shot to prominence since it was stolen between 8.30am and 2.55pm last Thursday from the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

Despite the public interest, Sam Johnson, the Richmond-branch CID Detective Constable leading the inquiry, says the lily's small size, unremarkable appearance – at least to the novice – and the tight-knit nature of the plant-collecting community will be a hindrance. "This is one of the most interesting jobs I've ever worked on and it's going to be really difficult to solve. It's quite a small community and not that open – our best chance of catching them is if someone starts boasting about cultivating it," the officer says. "The plant itself is so tiny and isn't in flower, and if you and I walked past it we wouldn't notice it. I would suggest it has been stolen to order for somebody with a real interest in water lilies rather than someone trying their luck."

The thief is thought to have dug or pulled the precious lily from the damp, temperature-controlled mud it needs to survive and experts say it may have been easier to sneak out of the botanic garden, which has its own security, because of its diminutive size. The plant's bright green lily pads can measure as little as 1cm across and its white flower with yellow stamen is barely bigger than a fingernail. The theft is likely to have earned the perpetrator thousands of pounds, given that the lily's rarity makes it "priceless" to enthusiasts.

It's not the only plant that appeals to the light-fingered. Other popular items on the black (green?) market are cycads, palm-like plants that are generally tropical or sub-tropical and can command £6,000, while certain orchids can fetch more than £3,000. Snowdrops are also popular, although they are a little cheaper at up to £600. Given the appetite in some quarters for rare plants, Britain's last remaining Lady Slipper Orchid – the country's rarest flower – is held in a closely guarded secret location somewhere in the North.

While the very rarest flowers may be in danger, plant crime is a far smaller business than trade in illegal timber, such as some rosewood species, and animal products, such as elephant tusks and rhino horn. However, the Kew Gardens theft suggests that this could be changing. "The Kew Gardens lily theft has shone the spotlight back on plants, which have been largely overlooked because it is much smaller than animal or timber trade," says John Scanlon, secretary-general at the Convention of International Trade for Endangered Species (Cites). "But it is nonetheless important and it doesn't take a lot of pressure to make rare plants extinct in the wild. We need to do a lot more work in this area."

Nevin Hunter, the head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit, has also taken note of the Kew theft. "We will be looking very hard to see if the attack on Kew is the start of a trend. It is so specialised that it suggests an organised criminal element," he says.

According to Grant Miller, border force senior office of the National team of Cites, the theft of plants is a relatively small but growing part of the illegal wildlife market. "We've seen organised criminals stealing ivory and rhino horns and we are worried that plants are the next step," Miller says.

Three months ago, his team intercepted four tonnes of Dendrobium nobile, an orchid that forms a key ingredient in a body-building supplement. "Criminals are increasingly realising that these products have a value and that makes it attractive to them – it's rich rewards with low penalties." Alas for him and for Kew's gardeners, this is one black market where there's plenty of green stuff to be had.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Multi Skilled Engineer - Electrical / Mechanical / Maintenance

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A multi-skilled engineer with a...

Recruitment Genius: Electronic Service Engineer - Television & HI-FI

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Engineers for field & bench ser...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Designer - Award Winning Agency

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity for a t...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager

£35000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global provider of call ce...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada