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ENCINITAS, Calif. — A thief was caught red-handed stealing plants at the San Diego Botanic Garden Thursday, and experts say a rise in similar crimes is likely being driven by a surge of interest in houseplants.

Dr. Ari Novy, a plant biologist who serves as president and CEO of the gardens in Encinitas, told FOX 5 Friday that his team was working with San Diego County Sheriff’s Department to track down the woman who swiped the plants.

Officials confirmed she was spotted clipping at least one plant, and that when a staff member confronted her, she handed it back and walked off. By the time deputies arrived, the woman was nowhere to be found.

Garden staff members say she was carrying bags that they believe held other plants she had already nabbed from the garden. “We are in the process of examining our collections to determine exactly what was taken,” Dr. Novy said.

He says the incident fits a growing trend of plant thefts, which he and his colleagues believe are being spurred on by a growing black market for rare or popular plants.

“The entire botanic garden community has begun to notice a serious increase of plant theft from botanic gardens and many other places, including poaching in the wild,” he said in an email. “We believe this increase in plant theft is being driven by the surge in houseplant interest, which is driving plant prices higher and leading to less ethical plant-sourcing behavior.”

Novy added: “There’s even a new term called ‘prop-lifting’ that refers to illegally collecting and propagating plants.”

The biologist says most people buying plants second-hand likely have no intention of participating in something illegal or unethical. “We would love to encourage all plant lovers to make sure they purchase their plants from reputable plant retailers and dealers, especially when purchasing plants that may be rare,” he told FOX 5.

“We love that the people are super excited about plants and house plant care. That is great,” Novy said. “Care for plants is among the healthiest and most rewarding activities that exists.”

The San Diego Botanic Garden is open to the public and home to more than 5,000 plants for research, education and display. To buy tickets, donate or learn more about their programs, you can visit their website.

FOX 5 has reached out to the sheriff’s department for further details. As of late Friday morning, no arrest had been announced.