Ruhling: The Purloined Plant

The day I moved into my house, 17 years ago, I signed up for a street tree.

The block was barren – the two trees on the corner were half dead – and I longed for sidewalk shade.

What it says.

Two years later, almost to the day, a small ornamental cherry tree appeared when I wasn’t paying attention.

Its slender trunk was held high by a pair of robust wooden stakes.

A while later, a crew came and planted a row of Belgian blocks around it.

You’re lucky, they told me, because Harry has a green thumb. Every tree he plants survives.

I erected a small metal fence to protect the trunk and planted a dozen daffodil bulbs.

As the years went by, Cherry not only survived but also flourished, creating a canopy over the concrete.

Cherry’s blooms, petite and pink, carpeted the sidewalk.

People stopped to stare and pose for selfies.

And pick and pluck.

I fought off all the pests – the fathers who let their toddlers climb its trunk and the kids from St. John’s Prep who swung on the branches until they broke — and picked up all the trash – who throws away a carton of sweet and sour pork in the middle of the night without taking a bite?

Right before the pandemic and too many tossed Chinese takeouts later, I invested in an official New York City tree guard.

That, I figured, would get to the root of all my problems.

When the guard was installed, the Belgian blocks were removed, creating a much more significant space.

I wanted to plant peonies because I love their lush, luxurious blooms, but the spot is too shady.

Through extensive research, I discovered the perfect plant: the Dwarf Sweetbox, aka sarcococca hookeriana var. Digyna “Purple Stem.”

Purple Stem, as its name indicates, is, indeed, supported by a stalk of that vibrant hue.

It also has dark green flame-shaped leaves, fragrant flowers and black-purple berries.

In the dead of winter, with the hope of spring in my heart, I ordered not only a Purple Stem but also a sister hybrid, sarcococca x confusa “Western Hills” that has laurel-like leaves and gets red berries.

Six months later, when the box arrived, Western Hills was missing; the nursery promised to send it in the next shipment.

In the meantime, I planted Purple Stem in the center of the plot, facing my front gate so I could see it.

I carefully positioned the 6-inch-high baby to catch just the right amount of sun on its little leaves.

Cherry’s canopy of shade.

Every day, I checked on Purple Stem’s progress, and at 10 a.m. on Sunday, June 5, as I walked my dog, Zora, to her weekly play date with her BFF, I noticed its leaves shining in a sliver of sunlight.

When we returned, at 11 a.m., I was shocked to discover that Purple Stem had vanished without a trace.

Someone had dug the plant up – or worse yet, pulled it out of the ground by its pretty purple stem.

I’ve had people on my block do mean things to me — a decade ago, my then-neighbor poured red pepper all over our back alley to keep Zora away, chopped down my bushes and re-poured concrete on my property without permission – but this was a crime I couldn’t understand.

Purple Stem wasn’t in bloom or in berry, and if you didn’t know any better, you would think it was a weed.

Although nobody has ever dug up a plant in my front yard, I’ve caught scissors-wielding nuns from the Greek church snipping buds and a couple of passersby blithely picking bouquets.

But what kind of person goes around the neighborhood ripping plants like Purple Stem out of the ground?

And what does the thief do with them?

Are they put in a prom bouquet?

Are they potted and placed in a window?

 Will there be a ransom note?

I posted a reward poster at the scene of the crime pleading for the safe return of Purple Stem, but so far, there have been no leads.

Apparently and unfortunately, plant snatching seems to be a common thing in Astoria.

A woman on 24th Street off Ditmars Boulevard lost a newly planted blooming impatiens to a plant-napper the same morning Purple Stem was purloined.

And when I posted my loss on Reddit, I was surprised that 11,000 of my fellow Astorians took note.

And 35 commented, telling bizarre stories of begonia burglaries, azalea assaults, mum jackings and planter piracies.

None of these tales made me feel better, but they did make me feel a little less alone.

Western Hills arrived at my house four days after Purple Stem was nabbed.

I planted it under the cherry tree.

On the street side, where it’s harder for a snatcher to see.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram,,

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