Shirley Brown believes plants can be powerful.
“It adds a niceness out here,” said Brown, manager of her apartment complex at 2209 Planz Road. “It’s inviting. And it’s like a different little world in here. You come in off of Planz with all the graffiti and everything, you know.”
But earlier this month, one of Brown’s potted plants — a 5-year-old sago palm that she had nursed from a seedling and planted in a pot her grandson gave her — was stolen. It was the third time Brown has lost a sago, and she said she won’t replace it again.
“My sister’s offered to give me some, and the owner of the property offered to give me some, but I don’t know if I want to do this again,” Brown said. “Because you get it to a certain point and it’s gone.”
Brown is not alone in her frustration. Twenty-five sago palm thefts were reported in 2006-07, said Bakersfield Police Department Detective Greg Terry. Seventeen have been reported since January, up from the eight reported last year.
Terry said police treat reports of tree theft like any other theft: detectives look for connections and follow leads. But he said closing these cases is practically impossible; so far all this year’s cases are still under investigation.
“How are we going to prove where it came from?” he said. “If someone says they bought the tree, we have no way of disputing it. There’s no serial number to trace it or anything.”
Brown didn’t even report her theft to police this time.
“What could they do?” she said. “There’s no way to prove who took it.”
Terry said he couldn’t speculate on the thieves’ motives in taking the plant, but Brown said she thinks thieves are making a quick buck selling the plants.
Mary Fahrney, a Bakersfield resident whose sago was stolen about five years ago, recalled that a gardener had stopped by her house the morning before her palm was stolen asking if she needed her lawn mowed.
“He made a comment about it being a pretty sago,” she said. “That night it was gone.”
Sagos are a particularly popular landscaping plant, said Robby Robinson, owner of Robby’s Nursery, because they are easy to care for — just keep them in a pretty shady place and cover them in the frost. And even if the palm is damaged by heat or frost, it will usually grow back.
“I have waited as long as four to five years to get a good head to come back on them,” Robinson said. “You have to be patient. Something that old and that expensive, you can’t just throw away.”
This heartiness makes sagos an easy target for theft — they can easily survive being yanked out of the ground using a chain and truck, said Robinson, who has experienced numerous thefts and heard many customer complaints in the 45 years he has run the nursery.
Robinson said sagos are costly because they grow so slowly. They can get up to eight feet tall (with leaves, as tall as 12 feet), he said, but only after hundreds of years. Their value increases with age and size. Robinson sells his 6-inch baby sagos for $19.95. The priciest one he had in stock was a 50-year-old plant for $395.
Many victims of sago theft don’t replace their plants because of the risk associated with such a costly and desirable plant. Bakersfield resident Mary Ramage said the two palms that were stolen from her apartment yard were estimated at at least $500 to replace. Fahrney guessed her plant was worth about $100 when it was stolen; she bought it for $20.
It’s tricky to prevent such crimes, though plant owners do have a few options.
Diane Boultinhouse said her godparent moved the rest of their sagos from their front yard on Panama Street to the back to prevent further thievery. Terry suggested that neighbors communicate with each other about when landscaping is expected so they can recognize intruders, particularly if you are going to be away from home for an extended period. Robinson recommended using tree sealant to create a signifying mark to identify plants if they are stolen.
And Donna Kaye Azlin, owner of Donna Kaye’s Cafe, 212 Oak St., chained her new sago to a pipe when she replanted in October.
“The first one didn’t even make it overnight,” she said.
But Brown refuses to resort to such drastic measures.
“I spent five years bringing that thing up,” she said, speaking of her last sago. “In the frost I covered that thing every single night. I mean, you know, you feed it, you nurture it, you do everything with it. ... Now, I hope it whithers and dies. That’s sad. The only thing I could do is chain it. And I’m just not gonna do that. I’m not gonna do it.”