It started off as a typical Monday morning. In other words, hurried, discombobulated and manic. Late for work and juggling toddler, bags, coffee and dog leash, I barely noticed that something was awry as I passed through my front gate. But I stopped when something caught my eye or should I say, failed to.

For the last few months I had been nursing the only perennial that managed to survive the previous winter in a bed toward the front of my yard. It's a shady area and just far enough out of the reach of the sprinklers that even the staunchest vegetation buckles under the inhospitable conditions. Poppies, penstemon and lilacs all perished there. But for some reason a stubborn bee balm plant I had put in the previous summer refused to give up. I admired its chutzpah and dutifully lugged the hose up there on a regular basis to give it a drink and make sure it had a fighting chance. Recently, my dedication had paid off, and the plant, albeit a little scraggly, was blooming. Three crazy ultraviolet flowers shot out from the top of the long stems, and more buds showed promise. It was the only sign of life in that otherwise dreary corner of my yard and gave me a little pang of happiness every time I passed.

However, this morning I sensed a strange emptiness but it wasn't until I had gone through the gate that I realized what was missing. The three blooms were gone. I reeled around to make sure they just hadn't succumbed to the incessant digging of the dog. But there were no telltale broken stems littering the ground. In fact, there were no stems, period. The entire plant was gone: flower, stem, roots and all. It was as if it was the victim of one of those bizarre alien abductions. The only difference was that this was not an X Files "without a trace" abduction. In fact, there was a big, fat footprint right where the perpetrator had stepped after walking right through my gate and into my yard.

Then it dawned on me. I was the latest victim of the Southside Flowernapper.

For months, a neighbor a few doors down had been doing battle with the same late night marauder. With no apparent pattern to the madness, she would wake up on any given morning to find a dark, empty hole where freshly planted flowers once grew.

Speculation on the block arose that perhaps it was the work of a jilted lover. However, it was obvious this did not come at the hands of a man scorned, nor was it the destruction of your typical drunken vandal. These plants had been stealthily dug up, root ball and all, and removed. Whoever it was carefully premeditated the action, at least enough to scope out the site during daylight hours and bring along his or her garden trowel. And he or she was neat never leaving a single petal, leaf or speck of potting soil behind.

"Maybe it's some rogue nursery," a friend declared when I incredulously described the incident.

I would have bought that argument when it was only my neighbor being victimized all her plants were healthy and robust Miracle-Gro poster children. But my scrawny, pathetic plant? It was something that only a mother could love.

Other theories came to mind. Maybe it was a staunch water conservationist who didn't believe in something as frivolously wasteful as flower gardens. Or perhaps it was a splinter group of some militant environmental group, like the Flora Liberation Front. And then there was always the alien thing.

But more likely, it was probably just somebody who didn't much care for me or my style of landscaping. And that was perhaps the hardest theory to swallow.

At first, my neighbor took the "love-thy-enemies" approach by leaving a polite, hand-written note on her fence: "Please do not take any more of my flowers. You have enough for your own garden." But that, too, disappeared. When the sign didn't work, she attempted to stay up all night and sic her three large dogs on the menace. But sleep overcame them all, and that failed, too.

Knowing full well I have trouble staying up past 10 o'clock, I decided to take my chances with the police. Call me a narc, but it was obvious we were dealing with a pathological, certifiable cuckoo here and one with a flower fetish, no less. Besides, who knows? The cops could always make a routine traffic stop only to find a backseat littered with cosmos, lavender and yes, my cherished bee balm. So I went ahead and filed a report which is a courageous thing to do knowing full well you'll end up the laughing stock of the police blotter.

And, I'll admit I felt a little silly giving the description of the victim:

"Yes officer, it was about 2 feet tall, green and leafy. Last seen wearing magenta flowers."

"Can you spell magenta,' please, ma'am?"

Alas, when everything was said and done and the fits of laughter subsided, the police agreed that other than being the highlight of their day, there wasn't much that could be done about the flowernapper except maybe getting a bigger dog.

While I know that unless I install a hidden camera (which, by the way, has not been ruled out) the chances of me ever catching the bee balm burglar are slim, something inside of me refuses to be defeated. There is this irresistible urge to replace the flowers, fill the void with more, bigger, thornier plants. See, although it may be easy to yank a defenseless plant up by its roots, it's going to be much harder to uproot me.

Missy Votel




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