BEL AIR -- Whether you consider them ugly or beautiful, there's no doubt Paulownia trees are in demand -- at least among tree thieves.
In the past four months, 15 Paulownia trees have been reported cut down and stolen in three separate incidents in Harford County, said Sgt. Robert Richick, an investigator with the county sheriff's office.
He said just one Paulownia tree was reported cut down and stolen in 1989.
Sergeant Richick said the trees are popular among poachers because they are highly prized in Japan, where their white, soft wood is used for everything from making musical instruments to ceremonial boxes.
Police have no leads in the case and said there isn't much a homeowner can do to protect the trees when they are away from home or asleep.
Tree thieves struck James H. Ruff's farm in Bel Air twice. Mr. Ruff said that he knew the trees were considered valuable in Japan but that he had never thought much of them himself.
"I don't think there's anything pretty about them," said Mr. Ruff. "They used to be a trash tree. They're really not good for much, except to the Japanese."
Sergeant Richick said police believe the trees are usually taken to mills in Pennsylvania or Delaware, where the wood is cut and exported.
Stanley Kollar, professor of biology and earth science at Harford Community College, said Paulownia trunks can bring as much as $2,000 to $3,000 each.
The price depends on the size of the rings in the wood, on whether the trunk is straight and on whether there are knots.
"The wood is so valuable because in Japan they've cut down most of their Paulownias," Mr. Kollar said. "When a woman in Japan gets married, she has to have a dowry box, and they make them out of this wood."
The trees, which have large heart-shaped leaves, are generally planted as shade trees, and can reach more than 50 feet in height, said Mr. Kollar.
"At the right time of year they're very pretty. When they're in bloom they're suffused with purple blooms that are very fragrant," he said.
"Maryland is ideally suited to growing Paulownia trees, especially the northern counties like Baltimore County and Harford County," said Mike Bazley, University of Maryland agriculture extension agent for Baltimore County.
He said Paulownia theft "is a big problem." Documenting the extent of the problem has been difficult because not all tree thefts are reported. Tree owners often don't realize their value.
"A lot of times people are approached by someone familiar with the trees' value, who offers them $300 or $500 to take a tree off their hands," said Mr. Bazley.
If you don't agree to sell, prospective buyers sometimes return in the dead of night and cut them down anyway, said Mr. Bazley. Thieves use muffled chain saws or hand saws to fell the trees.
Mr. Bazley said Paulownias growing on private property or in the woods are targeted because plantations where trees are grown for sale have more security.
Paulownia thieves have struck as far south this year as Fairfax, Va.
Spring is prime time for tree thefts because thieves can easily spot Paulownias in bloom, Sergeant Richick said.
"I've heard of people flying over Harford in helicopters to try and spot them," he said.