Swiped Topiary Inspires Botanical Gardens Staff, Engages Community

When a treasured topiary tree was scooped from the soil and stolen from the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens the first weekend of April, hundreds of people turned to social media to spread the word. Upon the plant’s return one day after the community learned it was missing, the outpouring continued.

“We are always moved by the connection people feel with the Botanical Gardens and their belief in the importance of our gardens to the community,” Botanical Gardens Director Jeff Gillman said. “We see this every day, but we certainly were a bit in awe of how many people took action. When we posted on Facebook about the theft, 535 people shared the post, many of them with comments about their experiences with the Botanical Gardens.”

The original Facebook post included a photo of the tree and read, “Please help. This weekend, probably Sunday, this topiary was stolen from the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens. We have been training this tree for over three years. It was a favorite of the staff, particularly one of our recently retired gardeners who spent hours shaping it. We are a free garden. We know that we will lose flowers here and there, and we know that some people will take advantage of us, but this one hurts. Our guess is that this plant was taken for installation in someone’s yard — It will probably go in this week. We’re not interested in pressing charges, or in punishing anyone, we just want our topiary back. Please share this post and help us get our plant back.”

One day later, when the Botanical Gardens shared the news on Facebook that the plant had reappeared with an abject note of apology, close to 400 people “liked” the post, and almost 225 shared the post, many with comments. TV news crews also documented the incident, helping to spread the word, and the gardens staff received phone calls, emails and comments from visitors.

letter of apologyIn the update about the plant’s return, staff included a photograph of the apology note that accompanied the returned tree, found in a pot beside the empty hole where it once was planted in the Asian Garden.

“Thanks to all of you for your help!” the social media posting read. “Yesterday we posted about the loss of one of our favorite plants here at the Gardens. Today that plant was returned! The incredible outpouring of support was unexpected and uplifting. We even had a nursery offer us a new topiary! It is impossible to express the depth of our gratitude.”

Staff included a note to the person who returned the tree. “Thank you. The topiary that you returned means more to us now because of your act of kindness. We hope that you will visit the Gardens again frequently. You are always welcome here.”

The Juniper tree is nestled into its original spot, and gardeners are watching it carefully to see if it will suffer from possible root damage, which can occur when any plant – particularly a large tree like this one – is uprooted.

“We’re glad our tree is back, and we think we have all learned a great deal,” Gillman said. “We hope that the person who took the plant has learned that any action – even if we think it is a small thing – can have a big impact, and often can have a ripple effect. For us, that ripple effect included some unexpectedly positive aspects. We are particularly touched to see how much the Botanical Gardens mean to people. We know this, of course, but it was certainly nice to feel the love.”

Words and Images: Lynn Roberson, College Communications Director (Top: Director Jeff Gillman with topiary; second image: apology note.)

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