What to do if you get a mysterious packet of seeds in the mail from China

Here’s a strange story from Utah. A woman got a mysterious package in the mail from China. According to the box, it had earrings in it. She opened it, and found the box to be full of baggies of seeds—not earrings at all. And she didn’t order seeds. What’s up with that? And who sent them?

The woman in Utah isn’t the only one to get a mystery seed package. Other unsuspecting Utahans have received packages from China marked as earrings or ear studs. When they open them up, they find seeds inside. Across the pond in the United Kingdom, hundreds of gardeners have also received mystery packages from China and Malaysia, marked as ear studs, that contain unknown seeds. (Thanks to RobMcNealy for the tip!)

Here’s what you need to know:

  • I called Utah’s Department of Agriculture to learn what the seeds were. So far, they haven’t proven to be anything dangerous.
  • If you receive such seeds in the mail, contact your local agriculture department immediately.
  • Do not plant or throw away the seeds. They could produce an invasive species.
  • The mystery packages could be related to “brushing,” a bizarre yet mostly harmless scam.

Department of Agriculture investigates

The mystery seeds prompted immediate investigations by Utah’s Department of Agriculture and Food and the UK’s Animal and Plant Health Agency. The importation of plants and seeds is highly regulated due to concerns about invasive species.

I contacted the Utah Department of Agriculture to ask if they had identified the seeds. I heard from Mark Ashcroft, the program manager in the plant industry division overseeing seed, feed, fertilizer, fruit, and vegetable.

What could the seeds be? A mysterious bioweapon (per one theory we actually saw on Twitter)? Drugs?

“So far our Seed Laboratory has identified the seed that came from Tooele last night as rose, amaranth and two mints. We have also bar code identified aloe vera and coleus,” Ashcroft said. Ashcroft said many more people were dropping off or sending in mystery seeds for testing.

So, thankfully, the seeds are nothing harmful. Just some flowers, herbs, and succulents. (coleus is a type of ornamental flower). However, if you receive a mystery seed packet in the mail, you should be aware of the potential dangers and know what to do.

Care and handling of mystery seeds

Invasive plants are plants that are alien to an ecosystem, but thrive incredibly well there. They wreck their adoptive environments when they arrive. A common example is kudzu, which is an Asian vine that has invaded large sections of the United States. Not only is kudzu annoying to gardeners, but its prolific growth can also kill shrubs and even trees by completely blocking them off from sunlight.

Invasive plants can even be a threat to human life. Another invasive species that has taken off in recent years is the giant hogweed, which releases a sap that, when combined with sunlight, can cause what the BBC describes as “life-changing burns, blisters and scarring.”

Much like the acid-blooded xenomorphs in the movie Aliens, attacking a giant hogweed plant with a mower or string trimmer can spray you with sap. The worst part — you may not even realize it at first. Once the sap is activated by sunlight, the sap starts burning your flesh. If it gets in your eyes, it can cause permanent blindness.

As you can see, invasive plants can be a major threat. If you receive any such mystery seeds in the mail, contact your nearest agricultural department immediately so they can collect and test them. Do not touch the seeds, plant them, or even throw them away. Tossing them in the garbage could mean the seeds end up sprouting in a landfill, unleashing unknown horrors (or some lovely mint) on the world.

Have we weaponized seeds? Or is this just a weird scam?

The most likely explanation for the mystery seeds (other than world domination by invasive flora) is a good, old-fashioned scam.

Jane Rupp, president of the Better Business Bureau’s Utah chapter, told FOX 13 in Salt Lake City that it’s a common scheme known as “brushing.” An unscrupulous vendor selling on a website like Amazon or AliExpress somehow gets your address, creates a fake account with your name and address, sends you a cheap product, and then posts a fake, but glowing review of the product under your name.

Forbes explains the rationale for this bizarre scam:

To the platform and other users, these faux reviews appear to be from legitimate and verified sales. Beyond the benefit of favorable reviews, simply having additional sales is often enough to raise a product in the rankings of some e-commerce sites, such as Amazon.

As far as scams go, it’s pretty innocuous, albeit unsettling. The “victims” are almost never billed for the items, and some even wish they’d be the victims of a brushing scam.

If it happens to you, take the standard security precautions like contacting the retailer to let them know, changing your online retail passwords, and carefully checking your bank records to make sure you aren’t being defrauded. But you likely have nothing to worry about. Brushing is just a bizarre, yet strangely considerate way for vendors to boost their sales rankings.

Have you been “brushed?” Or have you received mystery seeds in the mail? Let us know in the comments.


  • 24 Comments

    • Scott Byron

      Have not been “brushed” but I just wanted to say thank you for going the extra mile to contact experts etc. You really are doing a service to us all. 

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    • Sita Laura

      It’s pretty negligent to say that kudzu, an Asian vine “invaded” the U.S.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture imported and introduced kudzu as cattle fodder. It’s not the vines fault (or the Asians) that the people who did so made a mistake. MOST invasive species were purposefully introduced, and the outcome was not anticipated.

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    • Cia

      I got some marked carrot seeds and some tomato seeds. About ten seeds in each tiny plastic bag. I hadn’t ordered them, although I had ordered seedlings of different vegetables and a package of carrot seeds, which came. It surprised me that they would send such a tiny number of seeds halfway round the world.

      3 |
    • Diana Ehnen

      I recieved a tiny package of seeds on 7/24/2020. There is about 50 seeds in this tiny zip lock bag. They came from China. I will report it to department agriculture in MI. It did not say anything about them. Just a little clear plastic bag. If anyone has ideas what I should do please let me know. It seems to have a phone number on it but not sure. I send the envelope.

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    • Glenn Fleishman

      Josh, this is fabulous work! I would point out that brushing appears to rely on a little quirk in international shipping that is also the reason you can buy a $3 cable from China and they can send it to you fast and affordably. The Universal Postal Union, the international body that helps countries manage fair rates for international shipments, had a rule intended to promote developing nations that gave them a very low, preferred price for small packages to developed nations (between 500 grams and 2 kg or about 1 to 4.5 pounds plus some letters that were of odd dimensions).

      China is somehow still included as a “developing nation,” despite the size and dominance of its economy in manufactured goods. The US threatened to withdraw entirely from the UPU, which would have thrown international shipping into chaos, but there was a point to it! The USPS was increasingly subsidizing Chinese shipments. The estimate for last year was $300 million (!!) and it might have been $400 million this year.

      A last-minute change agreed to in October 2019 lets the US initially (starting this month) and other countries starting January 2021 phase in increases over five years to approach 70% and eventually 80% of their internal rates. Right now, companies in China can ship small packages more cheaply to the US than many companies WITHIN the US can ship to other US destinations!

      So these sorts of scams are going to become increasingly expensive. (And the value of buying small stuff from China will decrease, too.)

      7 |
      • I received a small package from China said it contained rose stud earrings , when i opened it contained tiny seeds. Received 8/11 in Akron , Ohio 

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    • Marcus Griswold

      Wow! This is what Wish has been doing. They are sending seeds that are really weeds, but claim to be crazy exotic species. Good point to let the USDA know. 

      5 |
    • Steve

      So I live on Cape Cod. Got one of these packages a month and a half ago. Said it contained earrings. AA6DE6E3-3422-4DED-84A0-92AED386A3E3

      There was a seed packet inside that was empty! Do I need to report this to someone. 

      3 |
      • Josh CentersContributor Steve

        Yes, please report it to your state agriculture department ASAP.

        2 |
    • Justin Howard

      My wife ordered some back in the spring and they are just now arriving. They are what she ordered but on the packaging say otherwise. One is marked as “Wire connector” and one is marked as “Bracelet”65EDCC23-CC13-4417-B75E-34A2B671C90DD97583B5-3181-4A89-B15C-5011F70B3F6D

      3 |
      • that’s so weird. has she ordered from them before and it was normal? 

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      • This is the first time she ordered anything like this. 

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      • Josh CentersContributor Justin Howard

        It’s pretty common for Chinese merchants to slap random labels on packages to get around customs. I couldn’t tell you how many “flashlights” I’ve received from sites like AliExpress.

        2 |
    • David L. Wise

      My friend got one today with a maroon powder inside.I called the police dept that put them in a zip lock bag.He said we did the right thing and was going to log them into its own evidence locker away from every thing else..He is going to contact the dept of agriculture when they open in the morning. 

      2 |
    • Cia

      I think the Chinese have read about many Americans trying to protect against food shortages in the pandemic, read about how hard it’s been to buy vegetable seeds (I know, I’ve tried), and entrepreneurial people have stepped in trying to get customers. The ten carrot and ten tomato seeds I got from China, unsolicited, look like carrot and tomato seeds. It made me laugh that I could get ten seeds from a bought tomato from the store and someone thought it was worth the effort to mail me ten tomato seeds across thousands of miles. The most disturbing thing to me is that they somehow learned from Amazon or Etsy my name, address, and that I was interested in growing vegetables.

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      • Kristine Cia

        Amazon or Etsy with me as well. The ones sent me came in March. 

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      • Cia Cia

        Mine came in May, I’m in Missouri. I’ve still got the seeds, I didn’t plant them, but I think they’re just ordinary seeds. I read about one man who planted them and grew squash plants from them. We’ve got tiger mosquitoes these days (aedes), really prolific and vicious, they might transmit dengue or yellow fever, believed to have hidden away in ships carrying lumber from Japan less than twenty years ago. Kudzu was a disaster, although used in many very useful herbal medicines. I bought some in March as part of the herbalist Stephen Buhner’s recommended formula to treat coronavirus. I am aware, though, of how it covered forests and turned them into spectral woods.  There are so many species of many forms of life accidentally introduced here that I wouldn’t worry about the seeds. 

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    • Kristine

      0FD60103-2449-4072-8F71-6C030C45DD63

      I received a mysterious package of seeds back in March or April. I am a gardener but I knew I didn’t order them so I was confused. And since I didn’t recognize them I didn’t plant them. I honestly thought I threw them away and while I was cleaning yesterday I found them. It never crossed my mind back then that this was actually a thing.

      But then some friends posted about it that they saw it on the news and I was like, hey! I have some of those. This is legit the first time I have seen an Internet scam that wasn’t a scam. 😆

      I’m in Arizona. 

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      • Bradical Kristine

        Wow. Did you contact the agriculture people? Or did you destroy them? This is such a weird thing!

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      • Kristine Kristine

        I didn’t destroy them. I have tweeted at the Arizona agricultural department and I’m waiting for a response. I would have called them but they have way too many sub departments listed on their website.

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