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For area thieves, all the fruit at the U.S. Botanic Gardens is hanging low.

The newly renovated conservatory at the U.S. Botanic Gardens is a calm oasis, a place to contemplate nature and escape the me-first attitude that marks life in the big city. At least that’s what Jennifer Turner used to think.

Turner, 39, who lives in Bethesda and is a China environment specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center, had almost finished a late-April stroll through the conservatory with her husband and mother-in-law when she spotted something shocking. “I saw this man with gray hair,” says Turner, “and with two hands he was pulling kumquats off a kumquat tree right off of the entrance. And I just yelled, ‘What are you doing? Stop that!’ And he turned around—he had a jacket with an emblem that said ‘Texas’—and said, ‘I paid my taxes, so these belong to me.’”

The man, accompanied by three women with beehive hairdos, carried off his fresh fruit, says Turner. Outraged, she went to the information desk to brief a worker on what had happened.

“I asked her, ‘Don’t you have any guards here?’” says Turner. “And she said they didn’t, and then she told me that someone had stolen an entire orchid in April. She sighed and seemed very frustrated.”

As are some other conservatory personnel. Not only have the garden’s kumquat and mandarin-orange trees been picked bare on their sides facing the visitor walkway, but a whole specimen gets pinched “every couple of weeks” on average, according to one horticulturalist who works there.

“I caught a horticulturalist from another garden—I won’t mention which one—who was taking a tour before we officially opened,” he says. “She was stealing a calathea—a prayer plant. She put it right into her tote bag.”

Christine Flanagan, public programs director for the Botanic Gardens, confirms that there have been “occasional” thefts from the conservatory but says that plants are more frequently pilfered from Bartholdi Park, a home-landscape-demonstration garden directly across Independence Avenue. “It’s open in the evenings, and it’s easier to not be seen,” Flanagan says.

Whereas people steal from Bartholdi Park for their own gardens or for resale, Flanagan says that plants taken from the conservatory are mostly unavailable to the retail trade. “These are not casual thieves,” she says. “They’re usually collectors. They know what they want, and they know how to take it.”

In all, 26,000 plants and a veritable fruit basket—coconut, pineapple, guava, papaya, jackfruit, star fruit, and several different kinds of bananas—are within arm’s reach at the Botanic Gardens. So are there plans to beef up conservatory surveillance? Bruce Milhans, spokesperson for the Architect of the Capitol (the office responsible for administering the gardens), declines to discuss policing arrangements. But, he says, “There’s lots more to our security than meets the eye.”

“Our staff and volunteers are vigilant,” Milhans says. “We would bring in a law-enforcement official to deal and react.”

The U.S. Capitol Police say there have been no arrests or theft reports from the conservatory since its Dec. 11 reopening.

And no uniformed guards were on duty during a reporter’s recent visit to the facility. Flanagan says that using volunteers to patrol the gardens would be inappropriate. “We are vigorous, we have called the Capitol Police, but we don’t ask volunteers to open themselves to something dangerous,” she says. She added that even warning signs have been rejected because they would detract from the conservatory experience.

So with the conservatory short-staffed—as the horticulturalist admits it is—thieves will probably continue to be met with deference. Flanagan argues that shrinkage victimizes public horticultural facilities everywhere. “There is a very wide range of expectations about what’s appropriate behavior, especially for a museum such as ours with such a diverse audience,” she says. “Lots of people, especially international visitors, may feel it’s there for the taking.”

Turner, meanwhile, argues for a horticultural zero-tolerance policy from the Botanic Gardens. “This place is a gift,” she says. “They need to protect these plants. Obviously, Mr. Texas is not the first one to do this.

“Maybe he went and stripped one of the panels off the space shuttle at the Air and Space Museum after he left,” she adds. “Because he did pay his taxes.” CP