The Curious Case of the Stolen Waterlily
Story by Alanna Rossi, Illustrations by Jaclyn Simon
Hannah was on her way to her car when she heard someone calling her name behind her. Turning around, Hannah saw Ethan, one of her staff, jogging towards her. Hannah was tired. She had just finished a long day after what felt like an even longer week and was looking forward to going home for a quiet evening. She knew based on the look on Ethan’s face that she wouldn’t be going home anytime soon.
“Hannah – you need to come with me to the waterlily house, there’s been an incident. Patrick is looking for you.” Ethan said, slightly out of breath, having jogged the entire way from the waterlily house to the parking lot.
“Sorry, what -“ but before Hannah could finish her sentence, Ethan had already walked away. Hannah followed, curious as to what the urgency was all about. Patrick was her boss and wouldn’t summon her if it wasn’t important. Perhaps there was a problem with the climate control or with the water level. The sun was setting on the grounds, and it cast a lovely glow over the glass house as they arrived. A small group of people had already gathered outside. Patrick was among them and when he saw Hannah, he immediately called her over.
“Hannah. Good, you’re here. There’s been an incident.”
“Yes, that’s what Ethan told me. What happened?”
“You better head inside. There’s been a theft.” Patrick said, opening the door to the glass house and letting Hannah in.
The first thing you always feel when you enter the waterlily house is warmth. The temperature inside is a pleasant twenty degrees celsius but can feel warmer when the sun is out. It was a peaceful place, especially when it wasn’t full of visitors. The waterlily house attracted thousands of people a year. They come to see the giant Victoria Amazonica, which the house was originally built for, and the many other aquatic plants. It was a small building, but it had a lot to offer.
Hannah was surprised to hear there had been a theft. It wasn’t uncommon for people to sneak cuttings or flowers, but to steal an entire plant was unheard of. In all of her years at Kew, it had never happened before.
A man was in the shallow, inky black pond with waders on, his long hair tied up in a bun and a serious look on his face.
“Hi Joel”, Hannah said to the man in the pond. “Were you here when the plant went missing?”
Joel nodded “Yeah, I was. Sophie came to me right after she noticed it. I was in here doing some pruning. Did Patrick tell you what was taken?”
Hannah looked at Patrick who told Joel that he didn’t tell her yet.
“Oh – well, brace yourself. One of the pygmy waterlilies was taken. One of the pair.”
Despite the warmth of the room, Hannah suddenly felt very cold. The pygmy waterlilies were a rare set of Nymphaea Thermarum, which is extinct in the wild.
Joel’s face indicated that he was not joking.
“Oh my god, that means we just have the one plant remaining,” Hannah said with disbelief.
Joel nodded solemnly.
Hannah couldn’t believe it. The horticulturists at Kew spent years trying to save a very rare species of waterlily only found in Africa. They were only successfully able to breed two after years of work. The entire species, which consisted of just the two plants, resided at Kew Gardens, and now only one remained.
“The only reason both weren’t taken is because the other one is safe in the lab,” Patrick said.
“At least, that’s what I think. I assume the thief would have taken both if they could.”
Hannah was at least grateful for this. The horticulturists wanted to plant the waterlily in the waterlily house to see how it would do. They purposely planted it in an inconspicuous location, where it wouldn’t be easily accessed by people visiting the house. It was precious after all, they didn’t want people trying to get close to it to take a photo or touch it. Once winter came and the waterlily house closed for maintenance, they would move it back with the other one. It was just a temporary arrangement. One that Hannah was now regretting.
“We’re absolutely sure it’s been stolen? It’s not … I don’t know … planted somewhere else? Someone didn’t move it?”, she asked somewhat hopefully.
“We are positive that it’s gone,” Patrick said.
Hannah walked over to where she could see where it was planted. She remembered the day they moved it into the waterlily house. It felt momentous at the time. Now, as she looked at the hole left in the shallow mud where it was planted, she felt a wave of disappointment wash over her.
“How did they manage to steal it? There must have been people in here all day, they would have been noticed, no?” Hannah said. “They would have had to be down on their stomach to reach into the mud where it was planted. It was not in an easily accessible spot.”
“Yeah, I’m surprised nobody said anything, but who knows, maybe the visitors assumed they worked here or something,” Joel said. “They were most likely quick about it and knew exactly where to go and when to do it. Probably been working on it for weeks. This wasn’t just some random person deciding on a whim to steal one of the rarest plants in the world.”
Hannah had to agree. It all seemed very suspicious and didn’t sit right with her. Someone had planned this, right under their noses.
“I’ve already called the police, they’ll be here soon to take statements and take some photos of the scene,” Patrick said.
“Take photos? Of what? It isn’t like there’s a crime scene. It’s some mud in the ground and you can’t even see anything,” Hannah said feeling frustrated.
“You never know, they might find something that can maybe help recover the plant. We just have to wait and see. We had no choice but to bring in the police given the rarity of the plant,”Patrick said.
Hannah sighed. “I know, I know. I’m just in disbelief. All of our hard work, ripped from the ground. I can’t imagine that we’ll ever see it again. You said Sophie noticed that it was missing?”
“Yeah,” replied Joel. “She was in here doing her rounds, cleaning some of the plants nearby when she noticed that it was gone. She asked me about it first, to see if it was moved or anything, but I told her that nothing had been moved recently.” Joel rubbed his bearded face with his hand. “We called Patrick right away to let him know, then Ethan went to find you.”
“Where’s Sophie now? I’d like to speak with her,” Hannah said.
“I sent her to go sit down and get a cup of tea. She was pretty stressed out about it and felt responsible, which I assured her she was not,” Patrick said.
“Okay, great. Yeah, she shouldn’t feel responsible. If anyone should feel responsible, Patrick, it’s you and me,” Hannah said, shaking her head. “I knew we should have installed those damn CCTV cameras last year. Those bloody signs do nothing,” Hannah pointed at signs installed near the entrance warning visitors to not touch or take any of the plants. A compromise.
Patrick and Joel left the house to go meet the police who had arrived and give their statements. Hannah found Sophie sitting in the employee break room sipping on a cup of tea, staring off into space.
Sophie was one of ten people that worked under Hannah’s management. She and Ethan were on shift at the time of the theft. They shared duties, which included watering and pruning the plants, and checking the water levels which had to be completed everyday.
“Sophie…” Sophie looked up at Hannah and her eyes welled up immediately. “Oh, Sophie, it’s okay. I know it’s upsetting, but you’re not at all responsible. You know that, right? Patrick and I take full responsibility for what happened today.”
Sophie took a shaky breath. “I know, Hannah, I just can’t believe that someone would steal such a rare plant. It’s so sad. There’s just one left now, that’s it. One plant left in the entire world.”
Hannah knew Sophie loved plants more than anything. Sophie’s passion and appreciation for plants made her an invaluable member of Hannah’s team. She understood the importance of plant conservation and protecting species such as the waterlily that was stolen. Hannah knew what this loss meant to her.
Hannah sat with Sophie for a bit in the break room and told her that the police were there doing their report and investigating the waterlily house. They both knew that they would never find anything, but it was reassuring at least that others were taking it just as seriously.
The stolen waterlily had become popular due to a recent campaign to bring awareness to rare plants and plant conservation. The waterlily’s size made it extremely popular. At just one centimetre in diameter, the internet deemed it “cute” and “adorable” and people all over the world commented on the Instagram account of Kew Gardens wishing they could have one of their own. Kew was thrilled with the success of the campaign and the engagement of younger people, but the spotlight on such a rare plant attracted more than just a casual passersby on the internet. Due to its extinction in the wild, the plant was particularly attractive to private collectors and Hannah knew that people with enough money would go to extreme measures to obtain a rare plant for their collections. It was a concern of theirs, but not one they took seriously at the time. Who would ever think to steal something from Kew? It seemed crazy.
The police had taken statements from the staff who were working at the time and took photos of the waterlily house and the surrounding area. They asked Patrick and Hannah privately if any of the staff would take the plant and Patrick and Hannah looked at each other wondering if maybe one of their own could do such a thing. Ultimately, they both agreed that they couldn’t see any of their staff doing such a thing. Everyone who worked at Kew loved plants and wanted to help save them, not eradicate them from the planet.
What started as a long day turned into an even longer night for Hannah, and finally, three hours later, she was heading home. She had called her husband to let him know what was going on and he reassured her that he’d have a large glass of wine and dinner waiting for her when she got home.
The following morning Hannah arrived at work and was surprised to see a news van waiting in the parking lot. The reporter, a man from the London Times, walked up to her and asked if she would be able to comment on the recent theft. Hannah didn’t know what to say.
“Um, I have no comment at this time. Thank you,” she said and then hurried past him heading indoors. She couldn’t believe that the London Times would send someone to cover the theft. She sat down at her cluttered desk and picked up the phone to call Julie, the communications director for Kew.
“Good morning,” said a very tired sounding Julie.
“Morning Julie – it’s Hannah. Did you see the news van parked outside?” Hannah asked.
Julie sighed. “Yes. I’ve been on the phone all morning already with other news agencies, including the New York Times. Somehow, word got out about the theft and people are interested in it. Apparently one of two remaining plants in the world being stolen gets people’s attention.”
“This is good though, right?” Hannah said. “Don’t we want people to know about it?”
“Of course!” Julie said. “The attention is great, it’s just unexpected. My team is working on a press release now and will send something out soon. We’re also planning on doing some social media about it as well. We figured we would take this opportunity to talk about plant conservation and really explain how devastating this was to our efforts.”
Hannah agreed that this was a good move. While they had the brief attention of the world, they may as well use it to their advantage.
“I’ll let you get back to work – I just wanted to check in.” Hannah said goodbye to Julie and then sat back in her chair. Her desk was covered in papers and books, all things for her to look at and read but she couldn’t bother with any of it. She couldn’t stop thinking about the type of person who would commit such a bizarre crime. Why steal a rare plant that might not even survive? The odds that the individual who stole it has the perfect conditions to grow the plant in were not good. The plant was most likely already dead. A horrible thought.
The man knocked on the grand door of the house, the largest estate in the area, and waited for the butler to answer. A thin layer of fog covered the grounds adding an air of mystery to the night. Without a word, the butler opened the door and let the man inside. He was expected. He waited in the foyer while the butler went to fetch the man’s client, standing on the marble floor and looking at a piece of art on the wall. He didn’t recognize the artist, but it looked expensive. Everything in the house looked expensive, including the wallpaper.
He didn’t know much about the man who hired him, except that he was an American and extremely wealthy. He was also a collector. He had amassed a variety of different collections consisting of art, cars, watches, and old bottles of wine. His most impressive collection was his rare plant collection. The man had shown him his collection when he first came to the house. He had a private conservatory built on his estate, which housed his collection. His collection consisted of plants from all over the world. He had plants that no ordinary person was legally allowed to have but somehow he had acquired them. Money could get you just about anything these days.
As he waited in the foyer for his client, he held in his hand a canvas bag which had a small container inside, specially built for its impossibly small cargo. A rare waterlily, stolen from the waterlily house at Kew Gardens. Apparently one of two remaining in the world. Getting it was no easy feat. The tiny lily was planted in a part of the garden that was difficult to get to. He spent weeks visiting Kew, scoping it out to figure out the best way in and out. He wore a uniform, similar to the one the groundskeepers wore at Kew so that any visitors would assume he worked there and wouldn’t question why he was lying on the ground, reaching into a garden bed.
His plan had worked and the whole thing only took him a couple minutes. He was surprised nobody said anything, he even passed one or two staff who didn’t even notice him. Fortunately, there were no CCTV cameras. Once he had the waterlily he had to move fast, and brought it to his client straight away who had a spot all ready for it in his conservatory, which matched the environment at Kew perfectly. Rich people were crazy, he thought.
The man eventually came to the foyer to pick up the package. He took a look inside to ensure that the waterlily was as it should be, and then shook the thief’s hand and thanked him for his service. He confirmed the remainder of his payment had been wired to him and wished him a good night.
Nobody would ever realize that the miniature waterlily planted in the man’s conservatory was the same one stolen from Kew Gardens. His friends would admire it among his many other plants, but only two people would know it’s true origin.