The Great San Francisco Plant Heist

The new planter had just been installed, a much needed touch of green on a corner otherwise dominated by too much city concrete. But as I headed out early one morning there was something missing. Large empty holes had appeared overnight. Several beautiful succulent plants were gone.

A review of security camera footage showed a man at 3:30 that morning pushing a large wooden cart up to our building. Within a matter of minutes he took a trowel and carefully removed the plants and then rolled away with his bounty.

What type of person goes around stealing plants in the middle of the night?

I took the video and posted it on the website NextDoor, which features neighborhood news. I’d done this before with footage of a person stealing bicycles and it eventually led to that person’s arrest. I asked if anyone recognized the plant thief.

But instead of tips, I received a tidal wave of reactions and comments. Hundreds of homes and businesses in San Francisco’s neighborhoods have also had their plants stolen in recent months. It’s a veritable citywide plant heist.

“I, too, had 20 new succulents stolen.”

“Our planters on Church have been hit again and again. They aren’t taking cuttings but whole plants leaving holes in the soil.”

“Hoffman and 24th wiped out pots and all.”

“We were hit last night.”

People shared other security video and descriptions, and the suspects don’t match the man who robbed the planters at our building. This is the work of more than just one thief.

Most of the plants reported stolen were succulents, and that’s probably no coincidence. California’s drought has people switching their gardens to jades, aloes, agaves and other succulent plants (and cacti) because they require very little water. They’re also remarkably resilient and can survive being ripped out of gardens and replanted elsewhere.

They’re also expensive, creating a nice little market for stolen plants. There’s some speculation that gardeners are robbing the plants so they can resell them to other local homeowners who are making the switch to succulents because of the drought.

But don’t expect the San Francisco Police Department to be on the case anytime soon. That’s because most people apparently aren’t reporting the crime. Some feel it’s silly to waste police resources with something so small as plant theft, and others cynically believe that anything not secured is just bound to be stolen in the city — that residents who try to beautify their town somehow deserve to be victims.

“I guess it is all part of city living. Sigh,” said Brian on NextDoor.

The truth is that city resources are allocated based on complaints, so if a police report is filed (it can easily be done online) then investigators can spot trends and act. Neighborhoods that become known as easy pickings for thieves are inevitably targeted for more crime. Criminals tend to avoid areas where neighbors are known for being attentive and on alert.

“It’s never a waste of your time to file a police report,” said David Troup, president of the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association, in a recent newsletter. “Even if your crime isn’t solved, your report may help prevent similar crimes in your area.”

And, frankly, it shouldn’t be too difficult for police to spot guys pushing carts and raiding gardens before dawn.