A Cyphostemma bainesii plant
A Cyphostemma bainesii (African tree grape) plant similar to the one stolen from the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum.
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Rare $1,000 African tree grape plant stolen from UCSC arboretum ‘a real loss,’ says nursery manager

Earlier this week, a rare and hard-to-replace plant was stolen from the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum’s collection. Nursery manager and propagator Linda McNally said it was likely stolen by a “succulent enthusiast” who knew of its value, and she lamented its loss.

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On Tuesday morning, Linda McNally, nursery manager and propagator at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, noticed that the Cyphostemma bainesii, or African tree grape plant, she’d recently taken out of the greenhouse for its summer debut in the Aroma Garden was not in its pot.

“Someone had just lifted it out,” McNally said.

She knew immediately that it had been stolen — there was no other logical answer to the 30-to-40-pound plant’s disappearance. McNally said the plant was not firmly in the ground but sat in a pot filled with pumice, red lava rock, redwood dust and a tiny bit of soil. The plant, which is native to Namibia and South Africa, thrives in this kind of dry environment, but the looseness of the soil made it easy to pull out and carry off.

On Wednesday, McNally filed a report with UCSC campus police.

The African tree grape is a caudex plant, which refers to the thick stem where it stores all of its water. This design allows the plant to survive in high temperatures with scant water. Because the plant’s characteristics are similar to those of succulents, McNally says there is much overlap between the two plants’ enthusiast communities.

“There are a lot of succulent enthusiasts who love caudex plants,” she said. “And with a caudex like this, I mean, you just do not come across these plants every day.”

For this reason, McNally believes that whoever took the arboretum’s African tree grape was likely a succulent enthusiast who knew the plant’s value. While not endangered, she says, the plant is rare. And according to her estimates based on its size, the arboretum’s tree grape was likely worth around $1,000.

In addition to filing a report with campus police, McNally reached out to all the succulent enthusiasts she knew, many from her time as a member of the cactus and succulent societies of San Jose and of the Monterey Bay area. She sent them information and pictures so they could be on the lookout for the stolen plant being sold in their circles.

McNally says succulents have become increasingly popular, especially in the California coast’s Mediterranean climate where they’re easy to grow. This has led to a spate of wild succulents, mainly the dudleya plant, getting stolen off coastal cliffs to be sold to buyers across the globe on the succulent black market, McNally said.

She says it’s possible that’s where the stolen African tree grape could end up. It’s also possible the thief might post a photo of the plant and try to sell it from their home. Or, she said, they might plan to keep it for themselves “if they’re a deep succulent enthusiast and they want a plant like that.”

The arboretum’s plant will not be easily replaced, McNally says. It was originally donated by a man from Clovis in the fall of 2019. When he had gotten it, she says, it was the size of a thumb and took 30 years to grow into the solid, 3-foot plant he eventually donated.

When the arboretum received the donation, McNally said she was “flabbergasted.” For the first year of its life at the arboretum, McNally kept the tree grape in her greenhouse to protect it. But last summer, she began putting it in the Aroma Garden where the public would be able to see and enjoy it.

“We’re an educational facility and people come to see our gardens from all over the world,” she said. “We have a lot of plants here that people have never seen anywhere else, so it’s just another opportunity to educate people on another plant from another place in the world.”

McNally said replanting a new one from a seed isn’t a very viable option, first because getting the tree grape to propagate from a seed is difficult and second, if arboretum staff were to plant one, it likely wouldn’t survive the increasingly cold California winters. Buying another tree grape plant isn’t an option, either, McNally said — the arboretum can’t afford it.

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In her 14 years at the arboretum, McNally says she’s never before experienced a theft of this magnitude. Around four years ago, a 15-gallon leucospermum, or pincushion plant named for the object its flowers resemble, was stolen from the on-site Norrie’s Gift and Garden Shop. The plant was placed outside the shop’s fence because of its immense size and was stolen, but at $200 it was less valuable than the tree grape. It was also not as rare, McNally says, easier to grow and replace.

“I’d love to have it back,” McNally said of the stolen African tree grape. She says people have been very responsive on Instagram, where the arboretum posted an appeal to the local community to spread the word and keep their eyes peeled for the plant. “If you or someone you know has seen this plant, please contact us at arboretum@ucsc.edu,” the post reads.

In the meantime, McNally has another request.

“If people want to send us donations for rare and endangered plants, we’ll take it,” she said.

FOR THE RECORD: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of caudex.