- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 12, 2004

COSTA MESA, Calif. (AP) — The thieves struck at night and knew just what they were after.

In minutes, they ripped two plants from the lavish landscaping at a home in this Los Angeles suburb, then fled when the homeowner woke up and turned on a porch light.

Total haul: $3,500.

The thieves were after cycads, palmlike plants so prized that a rare specimen can fetch $20,000 or more on the international black market. Some species have been around since the time of the dinosaurs but are now close to extinction.

The plants have been targeted in a wave of thefts in California and Florida, provoking anger and a little paranoia among collectors and staff at botanical gardens.

“No one talks about what they have anymore because they are just afraid,” said Tom Broome, a nursery owner in Polk City, Fla., and president of the Cycad Society. The organization, with 500 members in 20 countries, promotes efforts to save the plants.

Some nurseries and gardens have added security, but homes are vulnerable. The thieves who struck in the Orange County city of Costa Mesa only had to enter the front yard to get the pair of cycads from a collection of about 50 species on the property.

One, valued at $2,000, was an obvious target: a 4-foot-tall cycad (pronounced “sigh-cad”) from southern Mexico with a knobby, barrel-shaped trunk that resembled a giant pineapple with emerald frondlike leaves.

The owner doesn’t want his name disclosed because he fears thieves will return, especially for an African specimen that he hopes will finance a year of college for one of his children.

“If someone found out I had it here, they’d do anything to get it,” he said.

Nearly everyone involved with cycads has a story of theft. One nursery owner in the San Diego area, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said he has been hit twice in the past 18 months and has had to add $50,000 worth of security.

In September, thieves broke into the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Fla., taking advantage of the evacuation for Hurricane Frances, and stole more than 30 cycads.

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