HUNTSVILLE — A few Scott County residents are starting to receive unsolicited packets of seeds in their mail. They may or may not be in packages labeled as jewelry or beads, but the packets all have one thing in common: they’re originating in China — sometimes with a mail label showing they were shipped from the city of Suzhou in East China’s Jiangsu province — and they’re being delivered to people who did not order them.
Amber Minor, the University of Tennessee Agriculture Extension Agent in Scott County, said that she has heard from two people so far who have received the seeds, and she’s heard of other people receiving them, as well.
State and federal agriculture authorities are concerned that the seeds could be a threat to native plants: carrying a disease or spreading so fast that they overtake native species. Just one example of a non-native plant that has done just that is kudzu, which was introduced in the U.S. from Japan in the late 19th century. Later, the plant was widely distributed as a way to prevent erosion. Today, however, it is branded as an invasive species, one that rapidly spreads and crowds out native plant life.
Authorities are also concerned that the seeds being received by mail from China could pose a threat to wildlife, livestock and waterways.
“If you consider the number of pests that we are currently battling from China, you understand the seriousness of this issue,” the University of Tennessee’s Soil, Plant & Pest Center said in a statement.
The hemlock woolly adelgid, which is currently devastating stands of hemlock trees on the Cumberland Plateau, is one example of an East Asia pest being battled by the American agricultural community, although it is an insect and not a plant.
Imported seeds undergo rigorous inspection before being allowed into the U.S., specifically to avoid a problem of harmful invasive species being introduced to North America. The seeds currently being received in the mail have not been inspected.
The Soil, Plant & Pest Center said it is important for residents who receive unsolicited seeds from China to handle them in an appropriate manner.
“If you receive one of the packages, do not open the packet of seed,” the center said. “Definitely, do not plant.”
Minor said she has come across suggestions on social media that people burn the seeds, or flush them.
“Don’t do that,” she said.
Instead, Minor said, anyone receiving the seeds should seal them in two plastic sandwich bags and hang onto them until further guidance is available, steps that are advised by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.
She added that the Scott County Extension Office does not want the seeds brought to them.
“We don’t want anyone bringing them to us, unless the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service tells them to do that,” she said. “People bring things like soil samples to us for testing, but we don’t want them to bring these seeds in.”
While Scott County residents can call the Extension Office with questions or for more information — the number is 423-663-4777 — Minor said it isn’t necessary to report receiving the seeds to the local office. Instead, persons receiving the seeds can report them to the Plant Smuggling Division of the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service by emailing SITC.Mail@aphis.usda.gov.
For now, the seeds and their purpose remain a mystery. It has been speculated that the seed mailings may be as innocuous as a brushing scam — a technique used to boost an e-commerce retailer’s ratings by creating fake orders — but authorities are afraid that the seeds could prove to be dangerous. Initially, there were reports of residents receiving the seeds in a half-dozen U.S. states, but it now appears that the seeds are being received across much of the U.S. and in Europe.