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Americans are planting mystery seeds the government has warned against

At least four people who were unaware of government warnings planted seeds that arrived in mail

Packages of unidentified seeds which appear to have been mailed from China to the US. Photograph: WSDA/Reuters

Packages of unidentified seeds which appear to have been mailed from China to the US. Photograph: WSDA/Reuters

Last modified on Mon 3 Aug 2020 18.20 BST

Americans have been planting mystery seeds which appeared to be sent from China, unaware of government warnings to dispose of the suspicious shipments.

Four people who have come forward after apparently randomly receiving the seeds have since contacted their local agricultural departments to collect the resulting mystery plants – or in some cases, fruitless seeds.

Tiffany Lowery, of Kentucky, said she had thought the seeds were sent from her planting club. “I didn’t realize it was a thing until I saw it on the news,” Lowery, who ended up with a bright green-leafed plant, told WBKO news.

Patricia Smith, of Texas, also thought the seeds were a gift from a group she is in. “I planted them in a pot, they never came up, so I didn’t think any more of it,” Smith told KXII news.

Shelley Aucoin, in Louisiana, said she had bought seeds from online retailer Amazon, so she planted the ones she received in the mail.

“Then we saw the post saying don’t plant them,” Aucoin told WAFB news. “I mean, I’m not scared about it, I’m not worried about it, but I guess people are.”

Plants grown from mysterious seeds that arrived in the mail, as seen in an undated photo. Photograph: Usda Aphis/Reuters

“We brought them down here and planted the seeds just to see what would happen, every two weeks I’d come by and put Miracle Grow on it and they just started growing like crazy,” Doyle Crenshaw, of Arkansas, told local news channel 5News.

Crenshaw said he planted the seeds in his garden months ago and they produced large white fruit and orange flowers, resembling a squash plant.

The US Department of Agriculture warned people last month not to plant the seeds and to keep them in their original packaging after more than a dozen states reported receiving the mystery packets in the mail. People who receive the seeds are also instructed to contact their local agricultural office.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) said in a release: “Seeds for planting pose a significant risk for US agriculture and natural resources because they can carry seed-borne viruses or other diseases.”

The agency’s preliminary analysis has shown the seed packets included a mix of ornamental, fruit, vegetable, herb and weed species – as in weeds, not, apparently, “weed”. It also said the agency did not link the seeds to “agro-terrorism”.

So far, the agency said the most likely reason these seeds are being sent around is because of an online scam where sellers try to boost sales by sending unsolicited items to unsuspecting customers, then post false online reviews of the item.

US Customs and Border Protection, which is helping with the USDA investigation, has in recent years intercepted similar seed shipments.

At least four people who were unaware of government warnings planted seeds that arrived in mail

Why People Are Randomly Getting Suspicious Seeds from China in the Mail

If you find them, please don’t plant them.

  • Americans are receiving packets of “mystery seeds” shipped from China.
  • This is likely an example of scammers using manipulation online, in this case falsifying “verified reviews.”
  • So far, the USDA says the seeds are for innocuous flowers, herbs, and vegetables.

Some Americans are randomly being sent mysterious envelopes full of unlabeled seeds from China. Naturally, people are confused.

So I will say I have been buying seeds in last couple months. I never ordered any from China. I thought it was so strange when I received these. pic.twitter.com/NBJybJmJGG

— Cynthia von Buhler (@CynthVonBuhler) July 30, 2020

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has publicly asked people not to plant the seeds, and to instead send them to the USDA for testing by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

? The world is weird. Come explore it with us.

Most seeds that have been shared online look like dry citrus seeds, whose biggest threat seems to be breaking your heart because you live somewhere other than Florida or California. But could these mailings indicate some big biowarfare strike?

Well, probably not. Scientific American reports that APHIS has confirmed it’s found extremely normal stuff:

“Last week an official at the Plant Protection and Quarantine program at the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) said that so far the agency has ‘identified 14 different species of seeds, including mustard, cabbage, morning glory and some of the herbs—like mint, sage, rosemary, lavender—and other seeds, like hibiscus and roses.’”

The worst you’ll get up to with most of those is a wicked cup of herbal tea.

Although federal departments have prudently asked people to wrap and submit the seeds to them for inspection, even Fox News reports the mailings are likely part of a kind of scam called brushing. By mailing items as though they were ordered by U.S. consumers to be delivered to U.S. mailing addresses, distributors can make fraudulent “verified reviews” of their own products.

The fact that many of the documented seed envelopes were categorized as “jewelry” points to this being the case. A manufacturer of low-cost jewelry can make it look like people love their products, and in an X-ray or some other kind of inspection, it might just look like beads or something in there.

In the Better Business Bureau’s updated description of brushing, it explains why seeds make sense: “Often, the items received are lightweight and inexpensive to ship, such as ping pong balls.”

Scientific American spoke with an invasion biologist, who said the USDA is likely identifying seeds by sight at first, followed by a genetic analysis. Most Americans probably don’t have experience with seeds except as the nuisances they remove from fruits and vegetables, since most of us live in cities or towns. And one 2018 survey of people between 18 and 64 found that just 29 percent of people between the ages of 50 and 64 had gardened in the last year, and the percentages fell to 21 percent of people ages 30 to 49 and just 11 percent of people 18 to 29.

Those with yet-untapped seed potential might not know how robust the skill of seed identification is. The national agricultural youth organization 4-H (which has been scrutinized for systemic racism in many states this year) offers a seed judging competition where students must identify dozens of different seeds by type, including native wild plants, weeds, and crop plants.

Experts who study seeds can take examinations to be certified as seed analysts or technologists. And the International Seed Morphology Association offers a robust online tool with fact sheets, images, seed family information, and more to help seed sleuths identify even the most unusual-looking backyard seeds.

But don’t worry: It’s likely the only invasive species in these envelopes is one that targets Amazon or Etsy.

Some people are randomly getting suspicious seeds from China in the mail. If you get them, don't plant them. Here's what they are—and what to do with them.