This January Britain’s Gardens are bright with fury, our usually dull winter beds blazing with burst blood vessels and blue language, wisteria-pruning substituted for days of rage and wall-punching. My knuckles are weeping. You see, a water lily has been stolen from Kew Gardens.
The Daily Mail is characteristically in the vanguard of outrage, and asks: “As priceless lily is stolen from the botanical gardens, will thieves target your prize plants?” before helpfully informing its terrified readership that “Police officers in Scotland have expressed alarm at ‘work parties’ of illegal immigrants being used to steal sphagnum moss…, primroses and snowdrops” “with the proceeds being used to fund other criminal activity”. Now, I’m not a racialist, but illegal immigrants stealing our beautiful British tropical water lilies? Its modern man’s final slide into moral incontinence, innit?
Well, no actually. People have always stolen plants – because plants are lovely and people are not. I’d like to reassure any Daily Mail readers who might be looking at this blog that life is not actually getting worse – you’re just getting older and scared of change. So cheer up! Here are some comforting horticultural thefts from the good old days, when foreigners had manners and British snowdrops were the envy of the world.
In the autumn of 1849 a visitor to Dublin’s Glasnevin Gardens, made off with a large quantity of vegetables stuffed into his “unmentionables” and a melon under his top hat. For years the spectre of this audacious crime haunted the trustees of Glasnevin, and they used it to argue against working class admission for over a decade, presumably until they noticed that the post-famine proletariat seldom wore top hats. (Now, think about it, do Illegal immigrants wear top hats?)
Anyway, as hungry Irishmen wandered around with bulging trousers, across the channel the British were stealing the flora of six continents. The most famous Victorian botanical thief was Robert Fortune, a master of disguise who lifted great quantities Camellia sinensis from Sung-Low province while dressed as a Chinaman, establishing the Darjeeling tea plantations that still power this blog. His colleague Sir Clements Markham stole Peruvian saplings of the Caravaya tree, essential for the production of quinine, despite being explicitly warned that if he so much as touched a seedling “the people would seize him and cut off his feet”. (So you see, stealing plants is a great British tradition, joining in shows a willingness to integrate.)
Perhaps Kew could learn from the experience of Sir Clements and invest in some signs for the Prince of Wales Conservatory “Plantlifters will be dismembered”. Or they could spend the money on some decent antitheft devices like these from a patent application of 1936.
I actually find the idea of flowers chained to the ground rather artistic. Kew could use them to make one of their heavy-handed points about habitat loss. Of course water lilies are more vulnerable to theft than flowers or trees, because no-one has patented an underwater plant-chain, which is why they have electric eels in the amazon.
Anyway, digging in F. W. Christianson’s 1897 glossary of Micronesian imitative sounds – Notes from the Caroline Islands – I found a reference to one Cherri-Chou-Lang. a minor deity who stole the Kava plant from the Feast of the Gods and brought it to Island of Ponope. Students of intoxication will know Kava to be a mild sedative, recently proved to be slightly more effective than placebos in relieving social anxiety. Its sale in the UK has been banned by the food standards agency since 2003.
Is this the link between plant theft and criminal activity that the Daily Mail alludes to? If so then its readers need not fear, there are barely any Micronesian immigrants to the UK, and those that are here won’t be imitating Cherri-Chou-Lang because they all got converted by 20th century missionaries. Now, like honest Anglican middle-Englanders, they believe that weed, cocaine, opium and tobacco were created by the Christian God.
I hope that’s put everyone’s mind at ease. Yes the theft of the water lily was a bad thing, but not a new thing, and we can rest assured that the perpetrator probably has very wet pockets. Once he has been caught we can cut off his feet, but until then let’s all get back to pruning wisteria.