Unlikely to grow a giant magic beanstalk.
Unlikely to grow a giant magic beanstalk. Washington State Department of Agriculture

This weekend the Washington Department of Agriculture issued a strange warning: “We have received reports of people receiving seeds from China that they did not order. If you receive them—don't plant them.”

Well geez, way to make people curious. Anyway, what the hell is going on here? Why are people receiving mystery seeds from abroad? Why is it so important that they not be planted? And how many seconds will it take for racists to weaponize this against Chinese people? The answers to all of those questions except the last one may surprise you!

Here’s what we know so far: At least several dozen people across the country (including about a dozen in Washington, according to a WSDA spokesperson) have reported receiving mystery seed shipments. Despite not having ordered anything, they got a package in the mail from China, with the label claiming that the contents are jewelry. Upon opening the package, they found small plastic bags containing unlabelled seeds. Huh?

"Anyone who receives an unsolicited package of seeds from China should immediately contact their State plant regulatory official or APHIS State plant health director," writes a Department of Agriculture Spokesperson. "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. Do not plant seeds from unknown origins.”

There are plenty of (super xenophobic) conspiracy theories flying around about this being some weird new form of biological warfare, which sure would be a goofy way of destabilizing an already unstable country. As if some enemy actor would be like, “Hey, the US is teetering on the verge of ruin, you know what would really push them over the brink? A couple dozen weeds in the garden.”

But to be clear, these seeds could potentially be dangerous. They might carry diseases, or invasive species. One of the packets looks like morning glories, which are pretty but can really take over if you’re not careful. Others look like they might be grapefruit, and one set resembles seeds for some kind of gourd. If planted in the wrong place, they might unleash a fungus or just a whole bunch of very pesky weeds, which wouldn’t necessarily be a disaster but could still be expensive to contain.

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In other words, it could cause problems, but it’s also a pretty inefficient way to do deliberate harm.

I think the most likely explanation here is a scam called “brushing.” In that scenario, a nefarious seller seeks to artificially inflate their customer rating on a third-party sales platform by creating fake purchases; then they leave a fake positive review so that it looks like they have a lot of satisfied customers. They have to send out a package so that the platform thinks they’re legitimate, so they just send something cheap to a random address. Voila, mystery seeds.

So in this case, they’re seeds, but they could just have easily have been pencil erasers or shoelaces—if this is indeed what's going on. Either way, if you get some mystery seeds, report them to the USDA and, whatever you do, don’t put them in the ground. It’s kind of late in the season to be planting new seedlings anyway.