Someone apparently seeking a free Christmas tree stole a 7-foot conifer from the Washington Park Arboretum. The tree was one of the park's rarest specimens, an imperiled species collected from the mountainous Yunnan province in China.

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When they spotted the stump Wednesday, staffers at the Washington Park Arboretum had little doubt what happened: Someone seeking a free Christmas tree had chopped down a likely candidate.

But even the Grinch wouldn’t have targeted that particular tree.

The 7-foot conifer was one of the park’s rarest specimens, an imperiled species collected from the mountainous Yunnan province in China.

“It makes me want to cry,” said Randall Hitchin, manager of living collections for the University of Washington Botanical Gardens, which include the arboretum.

Hitchin nurtured the Keteleeria evelyniana from the time it arrived as a seedling in 1998.

The park has one other specimen, collected from a different area. But that tree is a kind of ugly duckling, compared to the symmetrical beauty that was felled, Hitchin said.

“It was a wonderful, wonderful tree.”

Replacing the tree will be costly. It may not even be possible to find a genetically equivalent specimen.

“I don’t even know if the site where this tree was collected is now under a hotel or something,” Hitchin said.

Growing endangered plants in parks and nurseries around the world provides a kind of ark that could someday be tapped to seed new populations.

The 230-acre arboretum is located in the Montlake area, and appears to be nothing more than a lovely park in which to stroll. But its collection of 20,000 trees, shrubs and plants is utilized in a wide range of UW classes and educational programs.

“A Keteleeria is something that even most arborists have never heard of,” Hitchin said. “Or if they have, it’s just a reference in a book. To have a specimen in the flesh is just a tremendous thing.”

This isn’t the first time thieves have struck the park. Several years ago, an employee of a local restaurant made off with an unusual fir tree and set it up in his workplace, said David Zuckerman, horticulturist for the UW Botanic Gardens. When the eatery’s manager realized the tree was stolen, he turned the worker in.

“That person ended up doing some community service,” Zuckerman said. “You would think most people realize the arboretum is not a tree farm, where you go cut your Christmas tree.”

To Zuckerman’s eye, the purloined conifer was not the standard American yule tree. Young Keteleerias do have a conical shape, but the branches are sparser than on a noble or Douglas fir.

“It’s almost a Charlie Brown tree,” Zuckerman said.

The species’ most distinctive feature is its long, flattened needles with two bright white bands running lengthwise on the undersides. “They’re very thick, glossy and waxy,” Hitchin said. “They can be over two inches long.”

The victim tree was located in the park’s northeast corner, bounded by 26th Street and Lake Washington Boulevard. “Maybe because it was out in the open and an easy mark, somebody was able to come in and get it quickly and get out,” Zuckerman said. He plans to query the neighbors to find out if anyone heard a chain saw.

Arboretum staffers have tossed around ideas, some tongue-in-cheek, for protecting their trees during the holiday season: Dousing them with foul-smelling animal urine, spraying them with nontoxic paint that would wash off.

“We always worry this time of year,” Zuckerman said. “But there’s not much we can do unless we put cages around everything.”

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com