TUCSON, AZ - A single act, done under the cover of darkness, recently turned thousands of native plants lovingly grown from seeds into little more than kindling.
An unknown vandal, carrying gallons of herbicide and a professional sprayer, broke into the Pima County Native Plant Nursery off Roger Road last month and destroyed nearly $34,000 worth of plants.
The damage likely means expanses of county rights of way, denuded for road projects, will continue to look like moonscapes indefinitely because the now-dead plants were intended to landscape those and other public spaces, and will take considerable time to replace.
The crime was discovered the morning after, too late to save most of the plants, with some of the trees and shrubs quickly losing their leaves after being spraying with the poison.
Other plants in the nursery seemed almost to fight the effects of the herbicide for a while, losing their foliage or vegetation days and even weeks after being sprayed.
Cacti in the nursery were largely spared from the vandal's toxic trigger.
"We have attempted to salvage what we can," said Robert Vaughn, with the Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Department . "But thousands of plants were destroyed."
With no herbicides stored on site, the vandal had to bring a substantial amount of it -- probably several gallons -- and a professional sprayer to distribute the poison in one night, Vaughn said.
They didn't use a hand-pump sprayer, he said.
The replacement cost is estimated to be $33,700, Vaughn said, but many of the plants will be difficult to replace.
Most of the stock was grown from seeds gathered by county officials and volunteers, while others were rescued from construction sites.
"This isn't nursery stock we can buy somewhere," he explained.
Vaughn wouldn't comment on who might want to kill thousands of plants, keeping any suspicions to himself.
Sandy Bahr, executive director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, was shocked to hear about the thousands of plants being destroyed.
"It is bad enough we continue to lose our native plants," Bahr said.
She said continued development of the region, competition from invasive plant species and wildfires are looming threats to some plant species in Southern Arizona.
The nursery was growing some lesser-known plant species local to the area, said Jessie Byrd, a local landscape designer who has worked with the nursery on several projects.
She was devastated by what she saw at the nursery in the days following the vandalism.
Byrd saw firsthand what happens when a denuded site is replanted with local and regional plants.
The bees come back. The birds come back. Even the larger mammals come back when you replant native plants, she said. The county will plant new seeds, but some of the plants could take years to mature. This will, in some cases, delay the landscaping portions of county and city projects. All of the plants in the nursery were grown to be used in public projects. Byrd said some of the half-dead plants will be planted in the nearby Pima Prickly Park, to see if their can recover.