Because I have three young kids and Disney+, we’ve started marching through the Disney vault. And that got me thinking about one of the gravest injustices in all of Disney: the people of Corona stealing Mother Gothel’s magic flower at the beginning of Tangled.
Caveat. I suppose I should make it clear that kidnapping is bad. Rather than stealing baby Rapunzel from her crib, Mother Gothel should have sought redress in the Corona courts. But regardless of Mother Gothel’s later crimes, it is clear that Corona stole her magic flower.
Once upon a time, a drop of sunlight created a magical flower with the power to heal and restore youth. An old woman named Mother Gothel discovered this flower—apparently in unclaimed forestland—and recognized its magical properties. She decided to hoard the magic for herself. Over the course of several hundred years, she kept the flower hidden from the rest of the world, going so far as to cover it with a basket when she wasn’t using it.
Meanwhile, the Queen of Corona was dying. Her desperate subjects scoured the countryside for a miracle. They found the magic flower, pulled it from the ground, and turned it into a medicine that saved the queen’s life.
This ends the relevant facts.
As far as I know, there’s no legal authority for what a person must do to claim ownership of a wild plant. However, there’s plenty of authority for wild animals. In fact, two of the most famous cases in American jurisprudence involve this very issue.
The first case is Pierson v. Post. For generations, this has been one of the first cases that first year law students study. It occurred in New York in 1805. Post was chasing a wild fox with his hunting dogs. During this chase, Pierson wandered by, found and killed the fox, and claimed it as his own. Litigation ensued.
Pierson claimed that, because he was pursuing the fox with his hounds, he had a possessory interest in the fox, and that Post had therefore stolen it. The Court disagreed, and sided with Post. It held that, in order to have a property interest in a wild animal, a person must either (1) mortally wound the animal while pursuing it, or (2) capture the animal. Pierson had not wounded or captured the fox—he was still just chasing it. Therefore, Post was free to kill the fox and take it for himself. Even if it was a jerk move.
Ghen v. Rich examines these principles in the context of Massachusetts whalers in 1881. Ghen killed a whale with a harpoon. The whale’s carcass sank beneath the ocean, and washed up on shore a couple days later. Some guy named Ellis found the dead whale on the beach, with the harpoon still in its side. He sold the whale at auction to Rich, who processed the whale into oil and all that other whale stuff they used back then. Ghen sued, arguing that his act of harpooning the whale gave him an ownership interest.
The Court agreed with Ghen. It was common for newly-killed whales to sink beneath the ocean, and wash up on shore a couple days later. The industry custom was to give the whale to the person who harpooned it. This custom was enough to give Ghen a property interest.
We can glean principles from these cases to determine whether a person has a possessory interest in a wild plant. Following Pierson v. Post, the person should take steps to physically capture or take possession of the plant. Following Ghen v. Rich, this action should be the sort of thing that customarily signals ownership in the community.
The issue of capture is tricky, because it’s hard to capture a plant in the same way as a fox. Fox’s are portable, and can easily be put in a cage and brought somewhere else. Plants have to stay in the ground. Therefore, we have to look elsewhere for evidence of capture.
Luckily, Mother Gothel gave us this evidence. She covered the plant with a basket when she wasn’t using it—essentially putting the flower in a cage. Thus, following Pierson v. Post, Mother Gothel “captured” the flower.
Ghen v. Rich supports this same conclusion. Some may object that flowers can be moved. Why didn’t Mother Gothel dig up the flower, and put it in a flower pot in her home?
Simple: it’s too risky. Digging up and moving a plant risks killing it (just ask anyone who’s tried gardening in Colorado). This is a magical flower that gives eternal health and youth. It would be crazy to risk killing it just so it’s closer to home. By leaving the flower in the ground, Mother Gothel acted reasonably under the circumstances. How society would expect her to act.
Mother Gothel covered a flower with a basket for her own personal use. She did this consistently for several hundred years. Therefore, she clearly has an ownership claim.
If Mother Gothel had an ownership interest in the flower, that means Corona stole it from her when they dug it up to give to the queen. That much is clear. What’s less clear is the proper remedy. How do you set a dollar amount on a flower that gives eternal health and youth?
I’m not sure either, but we can only hope that Corona has good liability insurance…
 Can we discuss how absurd Corona’s plan was? It was literally to hop into boats and LOOK FOR A MIRACLE? And how did they know that the magic flower would cure the queen? It seems like they just plucked a shiny flower from the woods, and fed it to the queen because they had no other plan so why not. Really?
 Yeah, I know that Mother Gothel later breaks into the castle, realizes that Rapunzel’s hair still has the flower’s magic, kidnaps her, yada yada yada. All irrelevant for the legal analysis.
 Corona could argue that the queen’s emergency situation justified taking the flower. But that affirmative defense couldn’t save them. When a defendant is forced to commit a tort against a plaintiff because of a private emergency, the defendant is still required to compensate the plaintiff. Of course, because the emergency involved the life of a monarch, Corona could argue that it was a public emergency, which does not require compensation. Hmmm….