BY GEORGIA TASKER
Wanted Alive: Forty priceless plants stolen from Fairchild Tropical Garden.
''It's a major loss for us. Some of the plants are almost irreplaceable,''
said Fairchild Director Julia Kornegay.
Thieves made off with some of Fairchild's rare cycads -- primitive
cone-bearing plants that first appeared on Earth more than 200 million years
ago. With stiff leaves that at first glance seem like palm fronds, the
plants are familiar to many South Floridians.
At Fairchild, a world-renown collection of cycads has been building since
the garden was founded in 1938.
The theft occurred in August. Because Fairchild officials were working
closely with Coral Gables Police to track thieves, the information has not
been made public until now.
Thieves worked quickly, when the nighttime security guard was in another
part of the garden. Since the theft, cameras have been installed, and
security tightened, Kornegay said.
Among the stolen plants was an enormous and graceful cycad that was mounted
above a doorway in the conservatory, Zamia pseudoparasitica. Its fronds
cascaded from above the doorway to the ground, about nine feet.
Thieves ripped the conservatory specimen from the wall; hacked off its
leaves and left the fronds on the floor.
''They probably cut off the leaves with a machete because chunks of stem had
been taken off as well,'' said Craig Allen, conservatory manager.
''The garden brought it in from Panama in 1976, and it was a mature plant
back then,'' Allen said. ``The [stem] was almost two feet long. It had cones
and was full of seeds.''
Allen said he gave police a value of $5,000. ''But if you consider the cost
of an expedition, plus a year's worth of paperwork to get permission to
collect it again, it might be $10,000,'' he said.
Zamias are found from Florida to south of the Equator, but Zamia
pseudoparasitica is the only truly epiphyte, or air plant, in the whole
family. It grows on trees in Panama but doesn't take any nutrients from them
(''pseudoparasitica'' means ``false parasite'').
Other stolen plants include:
. Zamia dressleri, named for Florida orchid taxonomist Bob Dressler, is one
that many people have admired at the garden, Allen said. Its corrugated
leaves are stiff and so shiny they appear lacquered.
. Zamia amplifolia, ample-leafed as its name says, can have leaves five feet
tall. Its native territory in Colombia has been logged. While some of the
cycads survived, there are no juvenile plants following, putting it on the
endangered species list.
. Stangeria eriopus has ''beautiful arching leaves.'' Allen said. ''They
have a soft, matt finish and are very slow growing.'' From South Africa, the
cones are called ''bobbejaankes'' or baboon food in Afrikaans, a Dutch-based
colonial language of South Africa, said Loran Whitelock in The Cycads
(Timber Press, $59.95). The plant grows one leaf at a time, with a total of
two or three a year.
''The clump that was stolen was about 20 years old, and still wasn't three
feet across,'' Allen said.
. Zamia soconuscensis, named for the Mexican mountain range where it is
native, this cycad develops arching leaves in the rain forest and can become
tall and tree-like. Its habitat is being cleared for corn and coffee, and
. Encephalartos ghellinckii is a South African plant that can take cold and
heat. Because it's so hard to transplant, it's not often seen in botanical
gardens or private collections.
. Encephalartos whitelockii, from Uganda, gets leaves up to 14 feet when
growing on cliffs and hillsides. It is named for author Whitelock.
Many of the stolen plants were young, and inconspicuously placed within the
''The garden had been scoped out and the thieves knew where to get the
plants even in the dark,'' Kornegay said.
Cycads are frequently smuggled into this country for collectors, says the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2001, Fish and Wildlife agents broke up
an international ring of cycad thieves in California in ''Operation
Botany.'' Fines were as much as $25,000.
''The people who stole [them] are knowledgeable about cycads,'' Kornegay
said. ``Most likely, they act as brokers and will sell the plants to private