Flowers and plants aren't the newest thing to be stolen, but they're one of the weirdest. (Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune / January 29, 2010)

MaryAnne Spinner was standing on the garage-top deck of her Lincoln Park home when she saw two men with shopping carts making their way through the alley below.

At first, she was puzzled: Why were their carts lined with little green plants?

Then she saw one of the men reach up into her neighbor's window box, casually scoop up a pansy plant, roots and all, and deposit it in the cart. A second pansy plant met the same fate.

"Stop!" Spinner yelled. The men just shrugged and picked up their pace, disappearing around a corner with their leafy loot.

"It was so brazen," Spinner says. "It was broad daylight — 2 o'clock in the afternoon. And it was a busy alley; cars come through there all the time."

Ah, spring. We're in that remarkable season when birds sing, sprinklers splash and plants walk.

No one tracks how many flowers, bushes and trees are dug out of the ground each year by fly-by-night landscapers, con artists looking to make a fast buck and home gardeners too lazy or stingy to pony up for their own plants.

But at Chicago-area greenhouses and garden centers, plant people tell of numerous plant theft incidents, some strange (The Pilfered Palm Tree), some silly (The Black Market Petunias) and some just plain sad.

"It's sort of like stealing candy from a baby, or picking on a little old lady or someone who's disabled," Spinner says of plant pilfering.

"Steal hubcaps (if you have to), you know? But leave flowers alone."

Familiar flowers such as red geraniums are popular targets, as are annuals in full flower and pricey ornamental grasses and Canna lilies. But thieves have also been known to steal grass (in the form of newly planted sod) right off the ground and uproot entire trees.

Connie Rivera, owner of City Escape garden center, says she was hired by a dentist near Ukrainian Village to fill the planters outside his office. Thieves struck the first night, taking bulbs, and continued their raids until the dentist gave up on flowers altogether.

"He said, 'They're too beautiful'" to last, Rivera says. "All he did was put in shrubs. There's no color there anymore."

Not all thefts leave a lasting visual legacy, but gardeners call even the smallest strike a blow against civic spirit and natural beauty.

Police departments don't compile statistics on plant thefts, and Adam Schwerner, director of natural resources for Chicago Park District, says that raids on city parks are uncommon.

"There have been some times when we've come up missing with annuals. Sometimes in our summer installations we will miss some palm trees," he says.

"We lost a palm tree probably four years ago in front of Lincoln Park Conservatory — a very nice palm tree, and that was gone. But, in the main, when we take care of things well, people respect it."

Others suspect sporadic but numerous thefts in a wide range of gardens, parks and public places.

"I think it's pretty common," says Rivera, who planted 10,000 tulips on streets bordering her garden center this spring, 100 of which were stolen right out of the ground.