Sissy Watson’s family received a package in the mail in mid-July with a label that indicated jewelry was inside. Instead, it “smelled almost like lavender” and contained tiny, oval-shaped seeds, she said.
The package likely came from China, part of an unexplained nationwide scheme, U.S. Department of Agriculture representatives claim. Unordered packages of unlabeled seeds have shown up in the mail in most of the country, including all but 10 of the 82 counties in Mississippi.
“We didn’t know about any of this, so we immediately threw them away in the garbage,” Watson, of Starkville, said Thursday on Facebook.
She was correct not to plant them, according to both USDA and the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. The “mystery seeds” are not a risk to human health, but any seeds foreign to an environment could disrupt it, and they might be carrying fungi or pests, Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson said in a July 29 press release.
“We have not seen a single package that was labeled as seeds,” he said. “Every single one was labeled as something else — jewelry, irrigation drippers, pencils. I guess they come in packages that could hold those things, but when you open them up, there are seeds with no labels and no identification, in a small Ziploc-type bag.”
The packages are most likely part of what Gipson calls a “brushing” scam, in which people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then uses recipients’ names and locations to post false customer reviews online to boost sales of the product.
However, this explanation does not make total sense, he said.
“If they just wanted to do a quick brushing scam, it would make sense to target an area or two, some high-population areas,” Gipson said. “They’re spending a lot of money sending those seeds over here and we really don’t have a good answer why.”
All plant material entering the U.S. legitimately is required to be inspected by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service “because of the danger of introducing unknown or new species of plants,” according to the press release.
So far more than 40 types of seeds have been identified from the packages, ranging from fruits and vegetables to flowers and weeds, Gipson said. They are most likely all from China, though some postmarks indicate they came from other countries including Iran and Uzbekistan, he said.
MDAC has collected more than 350 packages of seeds in person from recipients across the state — and 12 plants, in a few cases where the recipients had already planted the seeds — over the past few weeks, Gipson said.
Collecting all the packages of seeds “has kept us very busy” and eventually became overwhelming for MDAC, he said, so Mississippi State University started allowing recipients to drop off the packages at MSU Extension offices statewide.
“We agreed to be a location where people could drop those off, and (MDAC) is picking them up,” Extension Associate Director Steve Martin said. “They’ll look at them and see what there is to it, but we really don’t know why anybody’s getting them.”
So far the Lowndes County Extension office has received two packages and the Oktibbeha and Clay county offices have each received one, according to agents at all three offices. Some of the first calls notifying MDAC of the strange packages came from Oktibbeha County in late July, Gipson said.
Noxubee County is one of the 10 counties in which no one has said they have received any seeds, he said.
The U.S. Postal Service has been investigating the deliveries, which have slowed down over the past week, Gipson said.
Tess Vrbin was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.
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