A USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service National Identification Services botanist uses a microscope to  examine seeds from an unsolicited package.

A USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service National Identification Services botanist uses a microscope to examine seeds from an unsolicited package.

Photo provided by USDA

Agriculture experts: Don’t plant unsolicited mystery seeds

By: Brian Louwers | C&G Newspapers | Published August 11, 2020

METRO DETROIT — Plants are amazing and prolific. They’re true miracles of nature.

Some plants spread seeds on the wind. Some seeds hitch a ride on the hides of animals, flow downstream with the current or even explode to be scattered away from the parent plant.

But what about those unsolicited seeds in packages apparently sent from China and reportedly mailed to people across the United States?

While some of the unlabeled seeds have reportedly now been identified as common plants including cabbage, mustard, lavender, rosemary, sage and various flowers, agriculture experts have issued clear guidance about what to do and what not to do if any mystery seeds arrive in your mailbox.

“If you receive unsolicited seeds from another country, do not plant them. If they are sealed in packaging, do not open the package,” said Mike Philip, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Pesticide and Plant Pest Management Division. “We don’t know what types of seeds are in the packages, but we do know they come in a variety of sizes and colors, with some reported to be very tiny.

“These unsolicited seeds could be invasive, introduce diseases to local plants, or be harmful to livestock,” Philip said. “If planted, these unknown and potentially invasive species could have a very negative impact on the environment.”

Experts also urge people not to throw the seeds in the trash or otherwise discard them.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has asked anyone who receives an unsolicited package of seeds to immediately contact their state plant regulatory officials or the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service state plant health director.

“Please hold onto the seeds and packaging, including the mailing label, until someone from your State department of agriculture or APHIS contacts you with further instructions,” the USDA posted in an online bulletin updated Aug. 4. “Do not plant seeds from unknown origins.”

According to the USDA, any unsolicited seed packets received in Michigan should be sent to USDA APHIS PPQ, 11200 Metro Airport Center Drive, Suite 140, Romulus, MI 48174. Unopened seed packets along with any packaging, including the mailing label, should be sealed in an envelope. If the packets are opened, they should be sealed in a Ziploc bag first. Anyone submitting seeds is asked to include their name and contact information in case there are any follow-up questions.

While testing to identify some of the seeds has reportedly revealed their type, knowing exactly what you’re planting is essential to protecting the natural ecosystem from invasive species.

“It is always important to know what you are planting and to be certain your seeds come from a reliable source,” said Lori Imboden, consumer horticulture supervising educator for the Michigan State University Extension-Oakland County. “It is difficult to identify seeds by physical appearance, and unknown seeds could be for plants that are problems.

“Some plants cause problems when planted outside of their native range. When introduced plants interfere with ecological systems or become a threat to the health of plants and animals in the new area, we call these invasive species,” Imboden said.

She said purple loosestrife and giant hogweed are among the previously introduced problem plants that became invasive species in Michigan.

“Seeds can also carry plant diseases,” Imboden added. “Just like dirty hands can transmit diseases from human to human, seeds can carry plant diseases on the surface of the seed or inside tissues. Using clean seeds and plant materials can help you prevent introducing new diseases that may affect your garden and the agriculture systems important to our food supply.”

According to MDARD, mystery seeds have arrived in white packages with Chinese lettering and the words “China Post” on the label. Some recipients reportedly did not order anything but received the seeds labeled as jewelry. Other recipients reportedly ordered seeds on Amazon and received these seeds.

Experts have speculated that the mailings could be part of a “brushing” scam perpetrated by an unscrupulous vendor for the purpose of bolstering product ratings or increasing visibility in the online marketplace through bogus positive reviews submitted unknowingly on the receiver’s behalf.