These seeds were in an unsolicited package received by Robyn Stanicki of Belfast in early June. Credit: Courtesy of Robyn Stanicki

This week, Maine became one of many states where residents have received mystery seeds in the mail they have not ordered and appearing to come from China. What these seeds are, where they originated and why some people and not others are getting them is not yet known.

Here is what we know and what you should do if you find a package of unsolicited seeds in your mail.

What is the issue?

Unsolicited packages of seeds have been arriving in the mailboxes of Mainers and residents of many other states. In each case, the recipients say they did not order the seeds. This has sparked a warning from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry against planting the unsolicited seeds and asking anyone who receives them to report them to the department or the U.S. Department of Agriculture office in Maine. As of Thursday afternoon, more than 200 reports have been made to the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. 

What states are reporting mystery seeds?

Reports of the mystery seeds have come from Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington state, West Virginia and Wyoming so far, according to The New York Times.

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What do the packages look like?

Recipients said that the seeds were mailed in small, white or yellow padded envelopes with Chinese characters and the words “China Post” written on the outside. Apparently bogus customs forms attached to the packages have listed the contents as jewelry or other small items.

What’s inside the packages?

Inside the envelopes are smaller, clear bags containing unidentified seeds. According to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, the seeds are not believed to be harmful to humans or pets.

Who’s getting the packages?

There does not seem to be any pattern or connection among the recipients of the unsolicited seeds.

Where are they coming from?

Despite the Chinese characters and “China Post” markings on some of the packages of unsolicited seeds, there is no clear indication the packages originated in China. So far, state and federal agencies have no firm information on the origin of the packages. Officials with the USDA are working with agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to trace the packages to the original sender.

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What should I do if I get unsolicited seeds in the mail?

The Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is asking anyone who receives unsolicited packages of seeds in the mail to go online to maine.gov/dacf/seeds and follow the instructions outlined on the form. Recipients are also asked to place the seeds in a resealable bag and mail them to USDA-APHIS-PPQ, 15 Iron Road, Suite 1, Hermon, ME 04401 where they will be identified and processed.

What is being done about this?

Due to the international nature of the mailings, the nationwide investigation is being handled by the USDA Plant Health Inspection Service’s Plant Protection and Quarantine Smuggling, Interdiction and Trade Compliance Unit. The USDA is currently collecting seed packages from recipients and will test their contents and determine if they contain anything that could be of concern to U.S. agriculture or the environment. On the state level in Maine, the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is maintaining a spreadsheet to keep track of all reports coming in from people receiving unsolicited seeds in the mail.

Why can’t I just plant the seeds and see what comes up?

Agricultural officials warn against ever planting any unknown seed. They could be an invasive species that could harm local plants or wildlife or be carriers of disease.

Why are the seeds being mailed?

The motive behind the unsolicited seed mailings is not yet known. Agricultural officials are currently theorizing it is part of a marketing scheme known as “a brushing scam” in which people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then posts false customer reviews to boost sales.

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.