Dogwood thefts proliferate with spring bloom

Flowering branches can bring big money for thieves, experts say

The two prowlers in Jim O'Sullivan's yard could have been burglars, but they weren't interested in stealing what was in his house, he soon discovered. O'Sullivan spotted the men attempting to take branches from a dogwood tree on his Webster Street property in Palo Alto in broad daylight, he said.

"I heard a van pull up and looked out and saw two people get out with a tree trimmer and walk toward the property," he said on Wednesday. "They had a piece of the tree in their hand and said, 'Would you mind if we cut a few branches?'

"I said I would mind, and I asked them to leave," he said of the April 12, 11 a.m. attack on his front-yard tree. "The dogwood is in full bloom, so maybe they were stealing it to sell to florists. Who knows?"

O'Sullivan is not alone. Throughout the Bay Area at this time of year, gorgeously flowering trees become cash cows for some thieves. They often come with pruning saws and shears in the middle of the night, police said. The bundles of branches can fetch a good price. Harvesting from one tree can net as much as $150, said Bill Zappettini, whose family has been in the flower business at the San Francisco Wholesale Flower Mart since 1921.

Zappettini said a bundle of branches can cost as much as $50 wholesale, depending on quality and size. Dogwoods produce showy "flowers" -- actually flower bracts (modified leaves) that surround the tiny greenish-yellow flowers. They look like four fleshy petals in white or pink. The blooms measure about 2 inches in diameter. They are much sought after because they are long lasting, Zappettini said.

Florists use the branches as filler in bouquets and as decoration. But there is a short season, which lasts just a few weeks in spring.

Palo Alto police said the tree-branch thefts come in waves. Sgt. Ken Kratt recalled many dogwood-branch thefts in 2000 and 2001 but said he had not heard of that type of pilfering again until now. Sgt. Sal Madrigal said the thefts of flowering cherry and dogwood pop up from time to time.

The demand for dogwood isn't new.

Fifty years ago, there were never enough blooms to meet demand, Zappettini said. In the 1970s, as the market flourished, professional gardeners asked if they could prune dogwoods in people's yards.

"They became very popular, and then they started to ship all over the place," he said.

The market took off in the 1980s. To meet demand, growers started putting in dogwood farms in places such as Petaluma and in Oregon, Zappettini said.

But apparently some people prefer making some quick bucks hacking trees in the middle of the night.

Palo Altan John Hanna said the problem was so bad at one point that he and his neighbors added motion-sensor lights. One person added trip wires. Hanna and his neighbors even hired a security guard to patrol their blocks for a week, he said.

"The people who do this are ruthless," he said, noting he had a beautiful dogwood that was attacked at his former home in the 1400 block of Hamilton.

"People need to be vigilant when their dogwood is blooming. It really needs some kind of neighborhood watch."

Hanna said his azaleas have been routinely targeted, and some thieves also go after hydrangeas, which have large, beautiful blooms. One resident suggested painting the branches in a way that could identify them if they are stolen, he said.

Zappettini said most residents probably don't realize there is a value to many materials routinely pruned from their gardens. Most probably would just take the cuttings to the dump. But dried manzanita, acacia, tree of heaven and mock orange are popular for fillers among flower bouquets and are often shipped to the East Coast, he said.

Jesus Palafox, owner of JP Evergreen at the flower mart, said variegated pittosporum and eucalyptus are two other favored fillers among florists. He sells dogwood bundles for $10 wholesale, depending on the size, he said.

Many branch sellers who approach him often don't know what they are doing, he said. "People have to know how to cut it. It's too late when the flowers are already open for a florist to use it," he said.

Zappettini said cutting back a dogwood to make $150 is highly damaging.

"The tree's gone, it's cut to nothing," he said.

City Arborist Dave Dockter said pruning trees in the spring is not generally a good idea. Springtime is when most trees are putting out new growth, flowering and setting fruit.

Every cut causes the tree to expend energy to seal over the wound. Some thin-barked trees such as fruitless mulberry have difficulty controlling sap bleeding, he said.

Cherry trees, another popular flowering tree for thieves, is a worse bleeder than dogwood, he said. But dogwood is a slower grower and is slower to respond to wounds and to callus over. The cuts leave a tree vulnerable to fungus and disease, he said.

O'Sullivan has set up a motion-detecting camera to protect his property.

"I look at this as similar to copper theft. It's kind of the same thing. They are stealing valuable landscaping. It really needs to be addressed.

"I was surprised at how brazen they were. They looked like landscapers and wouldn't be questioned," he said.


Like this comment
Posted by KP
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 20, 2012 at 10:54 am

It's the florists that could stop the whole problem - supply & demand. Pretty simple.

Like this comment
Posted by Enough!
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 20, 2012 at 10:55 am

NOW I have an explanation why, when I came outside this morning, I found major tree trimmings, branches etc, lying on the trunk of my car. I was in a hurry to get to work, looked up at the tree, thought it looked sparse, but didn't have time to investigate more. The car is parked on the street, and I came home at 9pm last this happened between 9pm and 10am. Losers. Creeps. Jerks. GOD I'm SO tired of scum.

Like this comment
Posted by Gethin
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 20, 2012 at 12:04 pm

The fascinating thing about America is that there are an endless number of creative ways to make a living and equally broad opportunities for criminals to ply their trade. Not even flowering trees are safe.

Like this comment
Posted by Gardener
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 20, 2012 at 12:31 pm

At those prices this is grand theft.

Like this comment
Posted by Hulkamania
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 20, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Motion-sensor lights, trip wires and security guards are a start. How about a few punji stick pits? That should keep the theft rate down.

Like this comment
Posted by Farmer Brown
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm

This same story will be played out with the fruit trees later. Some people have no respect for others property and think that if they can see it in the front yard, they can pick it. I woke up one night to find two elderly women filling bags off my lemon tree. When I turned on the light they scuttled into a big Mercedes and drove off. Probably an 80K car and their taking my lemons. Unreal.

Like this comment
Posted by LARK
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 20, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Farmer Brown Do you use all of your lemons?

Like this comment
Posted by Sally
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 20, 2012 at 4:36 pm

LARK, Do you use all of your money?

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 20, 2012 at 4:40 pm

What r u implying...if Farmer Brown DOESN'T immediately use all his lemons -- emphasize HIS lemons -- that means random persons in Mercedes cars are entitled to strip his tree of fruit?!
Come on, now.
No harm in ringing a bell at a reasonable hour, if you are a neighbor, to INQUIRE if the owner wouldn't mind sharing some fruit (IF it appeared for some reason the tree/hedge/bush was getting overladen and overripe and unpicked), BUT the owner is under NO OBLIGATION WHATSOEVER to agree to strangers' demands for his property. The gall of some people around here. I suppose the excuse of the Mercedes ladies is that it would go to a church. That doesn't justify theft.

Like this comment
Posted by Farmer Brown
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 20, 2012 at 5:53 pm

LARK: Yes, I do. I use every single one in exactly the way I choose. Most are consumed or used for cooking, many are regular gifts to family and neighbors, and even the rotten drop offs go into my composter and eventually back into my yard... except the one's that were stolen.

Now, if I would have said "No" what would your reply have been? I'd LOVE to hear it.

Like this comment
Posted by midtown journalist
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 23, 2012 at 1:57 pm

This story needed a good editor with better news judgement. The headline says thefts "proliferate," but the story quotes one victim and a police officer talking about a wave of dogwood thefts ten years ago. That is not proliferation today. One theft is not a news story. If there are other current cases, the reporter should have found them and included them. If there are not, this story should have been killed, however terrible the experience was for Mr. O'Sullivan. His run-in with the dogwood theives is worth a news brief. But it is not enough to support a story framed as reporting on a new crime wave.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Coffeebar opens in Menlo Park
By Elena Kadvany | 2 comments | 5,015 views

Spring College Fairs
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 0 comments | 731 views

Couples: So You Married Mom or Dad . . .
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 718 views

Stanford's Assistive Technology Class Open to All Starts 1/9/2018
By Max Greenberg | 0 comments | 545 views