Ministry Of Controversy

Crimes and Ethical Dilemmas in the News

Martha Lemmond6 comments1018 views
Spread the love

Two items in Sunday’s papers caught my interest, and possibly yours.  “Metro edict choking Phantom Planter’s blooms” in the Washington Post really warmed my heart – except for the part about Metro.  Part-time lawyer Henry Doctor has been planting flowering plants in the 176 otherwise abandoned little planters along the escalator leading to the Dupont Circle subway station (aka Metro).   I’ve ridden those multi-story escalators and very much appreciated the plants, and had no idea a volunteer gardener was to thank for  them.  Trouble is, he asked for permission and was told he’d face “arrest, fines and imprisonment” if he continued to tend to the 1,000 flowers he planted there.  (By the way, the story doesn’t tell us why they’re abandoned.  For at least 20 years they contained groundcover Junipers and looked terrific.)

The back story is that the Phantom Planter here has has been quietly performing “clandestine horticulture” for 34 years, with no trouble.  He’s planted 40,000 flowers far and wide – at embassies and memorials, even in other countries, like Cambodia, Argentina.  He tells the Post, “I’m not denying that I’m a little nuts”.  I say, nuts in the best possible way.  He’s the son of a well-known District community activist, and I guess he sees beautification as a form of community activism, which I certainly think it is.

Until now he’s stayed under the radar, but since his citation has gone public with this website, which is bringing attention and support for his cause, as have other online campaigns to protest anti-gardening laws and regulations.  (Think HOAs and cities that require all-grass front yards.)  Doctor is respecting Metro’s order that he stop watering the plants (Metro cites safety concerns), but he’s worried.  He’s a gardener.  When there’s no rain, we fret.

Next, in “Horticulture Heist, the New York Times’ Ethicist was asked to weigh in on the ethics of taking cuttings from plants in a shopping center – which plants could not be found at any store, we’re told.  So, is this stealing?  The Ethicist’s considered opinion is that if he were to place unethical acts on an ascending continuum of 1 to 100, he’d give the cuttings-thieves “a 4.  Maybe a 3.”

One more thing.  This week’s New Yorker has a cool city garden on the cover, and click here to scroll through years of gardening-related covers.

Posted by

Susan Harris
on June 25, 2013 at 8:31 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy, What’s Happening.


  1. The NY Times Ethicist prefaced his comment by saying the couple technically stole, technically vandalized and should have asked permission before taking the cuttings. It does seem like a harmless crime, but I guess a lot depends on how carefully the cuttings were taken. And maybe if the couple had asked, the landscaper could’ve helped them source the plants.

  2. Oh, don’t get me started…the number of people who pick fruit out of the orchards around here without asking is crazy. I have a friend who found her orchard foreman hiding in the trees from a busload of tourists picking their apples–he was just so shocked by their invasion.

  3. I recall being told, when visiting a British garden often visited by busloads of blue-haired ladies, that they would descend like locusts onto uncommon cutting items (“Oh, I’m just taking a slip”) until the plants were fully dismantled. Common sport over there; guards would have to be temporarily posted.

  4. Re: Cuttings. When you take cuttings from a public planting (museum garden, sidewalk, etc.) – that’s tax money that paid for those plantings. As a taxpayer, I’d put that a little higher up the crime scale than 3. A plant in a private garden that’s actually hanging over the sidewalk/street getting in people’s way would be higher yet, but a little below walking into the garden itself to take plant matter. But if it’s someone else’s property, it’s someone else’s property whether it’s a withered flower or a diamond!
    Re: Mr. Doctor & Metro – if Metro’s concern is actually safety issues, why could they not ask him for proof of insurance, and to put up a “men working” sign? Metro’s reaction was not only extreme, but slightly bogus.

  5. What the Ethicist didn’t touch on was this relative new (in the plant world anyway) process of patenting plants. If those shopping mall plants were trademarked, then “propagation was prohibited”, to quote the legalize. So what the couple did was technically not only ethically wrong, but illegal as well.

Leave a Response