Every spring, as the azaleas pop in princess colors and lilacs droop with Renoir elegance, the flower thieves begin their spree.

They cut peonies and hydrangeas. They even pull trees worth thousands of dollars right out of the soil. The thievery has become a vernal-equinox ritual in the nation’s capital.

And the more earnest, self-conscious residents of Washington struggle with how seriously to take what some dub this “First World problem.”

First, let’s get to know our suspects.

There’s the legendary flower thief of Northwest Washington, a small, leather-faced man who looks like an old Vincent van Gogh and routinely gives some Mediterranean country as his place of residence whenever police stop him. (He is actually homeless and either stays in a shelter or behind a local rec center.)

For nearly a decade, he’s been cutting the priciest blooms — hydrangeas, peonies and lilac — and selling them to local florists and restaurants. Occasionally, someone snaps a photo of him, and it is circulated on neighborhood e-mail forums.

Then there are the loserboys who need to bring a flower to a girlfriend or a mama but don’t even have the cash for stop-light roses. They prey on the porches of Capitol Hill, the gardens of Northeast Washington and even a few cemeteries, treating them like walk-up florists, especially before Mother’s Day.

“I have not planted the flowerpots yet at my house and I never do until after Mother’s Day,” said 5th District Commander Andy Solberg, who lives in the 4th District and has learned his lesson after battling flower thieves for years.

“They’re for MY family, not that other guy’s!”

And we also have the unscrupulous professional gardeners who steal plants and trees right out of the ground and resell them or use them in their crooked landscaping businesses. Never buy that flat of geraniums off the back of that guy’s pickup truck.

It’s easy to get cynical about this crime spree. A snarky Tumblr, Cleveland Park Complaints, that compiles the most cringe-inducing posts from the tony neighborhood has been buzzy all week.

But not Commander Mike Reese, the lawman in charge of the bucolic, azalea-filled 2nd District.

“If you’re stealing, you’re stealing,” said Reese, who reminds himself of this when folks get all aflutter over a denuded hydrangea bush.

“We can’t ask the community to communicate, to tell us stuff, and then, if they tell us about these flowers, we can’t look at them and say: ‘Flowers? Really?’ ” said Reese, who growls a little bit when he talks and actually won an award called “Cop’s Cop.” He’s known for his heroic capture of a violent sexual predator and the takedown — on his birthday — of an armed drug dealer.

So the beefy commander summons how he felt when the grape hyacinths blooming outside his Bloomingdale home were all lopped off: Furious.

So he went all-out on Flower Man. His lieutenants were briefed on his description. Everyone saw the photograph that one of the residents took of a man walking down the street with a big armload of lilac.

There! Behind Politics and Prose! An older man with a load of flowers in his arms! They had him. He was stopped and questioned.

“Turns out it wasn’t him. That man had a receipt for all the flowers he bought,” one resident said.

Police tracked down the shop on L Street that was allegedly selling Reese’s blooms. “They said they didn’t know he stole them,” Reese said.

When police finally cornered the suspected thief last weekend? He didn’t have any flowers, so they couldn’t charge him with anything. “We talked to him, told him he couldn’t do it anymore,” Reese said.

But that wasn’t the first time the man had talked with police. “One time, we caught him red-handed. Arms full of flowers. This was down near Georgetown,” Reese said. “But the person didn’t want us to take a report.”

So there it is.

Even the residents themselves, the ones calling police every time their garden is violated, expressed doubts about locking flower thieves up.

“I know it must be upsetting to see flowers missing, but he’s a child of the universe like each of us,” one of the residents in the Cleveland Park e-mail group wrote in the red-hot exchanges about Flower Man.

A resident who helps moderate an e-mail group in one of the other neighborhoods where Flower Man also hunts said there is a lots of online discussion about whether his thefts are an annoyance or a threat to neighborhood safety.

Like the broken windows theory — that small property crimes lead to larger problems if left unaddressed — the residents wonder if garden mangling is akin to graffiti, a bellwether of bigger issues.

“I get e-mails: ‘You have to stop this!’ But no one wants him arrested,” Reese sighs. “They have to realize, if someone’s stealing, it doesn’t stop with flowers.”

In the meantime, why don’t we see if we can solve this other First World dilemma on the e-mail group list: “I have an early 19th century terra cotta bust of a French nobleman that is badly soiled. Does anyone know where I might get it cleaned?”

Quick, better call Homeland Security for this one.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.