Mystery seeds
July 16, 2021 9:05 AM   Subscribe

The truth behind the Amazon mystery seeds “ If someone had wanted to invent a surreal provocation designed to unnerve Americans in the summer of 2020, it’s difficult to conceive of a better one than a deluge of unsolicited Chinese seeds.”
posted by dhruva (68 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
My household blamed Tabitha from Neko Atsume.
posted by radwolf76 at 9:24 AM on July 16 [5 favorites]


I swear everyone should read the entire article so as to lose the appropriate amount of faith in your fellow humans. Or if it is too long, go quickly to the bottom.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:37 AM on July 16 [38 favorites]


Ahahahaha - thank-you, this is so wildly funny that I am wiping tears away from my eyes.

This pretty much explains our entire civilization's errant ways due to lack of any form of long-term memory.

If people cannot remember what they actually purchased - or be bothered to go through their order history, exactly how will they remember things that fall off the current news cycle... Basically memory seems to exist en-mass for only 6-weeks at a time. Instead - it is a conspiracy - or at the very least a surprise. No wonder why they are constantly surprised by bad cops, untrustworthy politicians, evil trans-national corporations, snookered by billionaires.

Jesus wept.
posted by rozcakj at 9:38 AM on July 16 [24 favorites]


However, the mislabeled packages, possibly to get around customs and quarantine regulations seems to be a real story.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:40 AM on July 16 [15 favorites]


you know what the real tragedy is here

i used my last free atlantic article & skipped to that last paragraph
posted by lalochezia at 9:44 AM on July 16 [24 favorites]


Sid Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner, sat atop his stallion Smokey and faced the camera.

He gave a press conference while sitting on his horse?

Does this sort of thing happen often? Was he behind a really tall podium with microphones? Was he in a briefing room or outside in a briefing field? Was anyone else on a horse? Did he get on the horse ahead of time and wait for the press to gather, or did he dramatically arrive on the horse after the press had assembled? Or was the horse already there and as the briefing began he walked over and climbed up on it?

Also, fuck this guy for being so racist.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 9:44 AM on July 16 [31 favorites]


I find it amazing how many people quoted in this article have magical thinking around seeds like they're living in a China Miéville book or something. Seeds aren't any more likely to give you some mystery super-virus than anything else. They're unlikely to grow into Seymore from Little Shop of Horrors. It's true they might grow into something invasive, but simply looking at them isn't actually dangerous. But these people act like they have a giant box labelled "ANTHRAX AND SARIN."
posted by GuyZero at 9:49 AM on July 16 [9 favorites]


The Vegetables:...swear everyone should read the entire article so as to lose the appropriate amount of faith in your fellow humans.
Eponysterical.
posted by Flight Hardware, do not touch at 9:53 AM on July 16 [4 favorites]


TL;DR - people who ordered seeds received seeds but allegedly forgot they ordered seeds. Some xenophobic people believed that something nefarious was afoot when they saw Chinese words on the envelopes.

This truly is the stupidest timeline.
posted by photoslob at 9:53 AM on July 16 [46 favorites]


I have often said that the great thing about ordering things from China is that I've forgotten what I ordered by the time they arrive so it's like getting an unexpected present.
posted by clawsoon at 9:59 AM on July 16 [18 favorites]


Huh, I was not expecting this ending. I thought it might be some sort of algorithm error. Am I unusual for...keeping track of what I order?
posted by desuetude at 10:01 AM on July 16 [11 favorites]


that was WILD!
posted by EllaEm at 10:04 AM on July 16


This pretty much explains our entire civilization's errant ways due to lack of any form of long-term memory.

I received 100 liatris spicata corms in the mail this past May which I had no recollection of buying, and oddly I could not find a receipt in my email. That said I know what they are, and instead of conspiracies and reduced mental health, I have beautiful flowers in my garden (they are just starting to bloom) along with a lot of happy pollinators. [most likely I was buzzed or on edibles last January when I ordered them, my normy idea of fun while high during the winter seems to be ordering like $10 worth of flower seeds or bulbs.]
posted by MillMan at 10:11 AM on July 16 [13 favorites]


Love this story. People are so dismissive of the concept of "mass hysteria" as an explanation for perceived threats but that is exactly what happened here. I was about to say "on a small scale" but it sounds like dozens of government agencies are investigating this now.

I freely admit that I have received something from Amazon and thought "wtf is this??" and had to go back through my purchase history to figure it out. I think we have been conditioned to two-day shipping and that's exactly how long we hold on to the memory of what we ordered.
posted by muddgirl at 10:14 AM on July 16 [13 favorites]


It's so obvious to me when a seller on Amazon is based in China, but I guess this is actually a form of tacit knowledge, like the FPP from the other day.

I'm reminded of a comment that someone here (it may have been Frowner?) wrote once, that most Americans don't understand that China is a real place. So when an American like this gets a package from China, their minds immediately jump to fanciful conspiracy theories instead of checking their order history.
posted by airmail at 10:21 AM on July 16 [18 favorites]


I can easily understand forgetting you'd ordered something, especially if it took a long time to arrive; but to step from that to "secret Chinese attack!" without the intervening moment when you look at your order history is what makes me despair of our species.
posted by praemunire at 11:01 AM on July 16 [8 favorites]


While the headlines about mystery seed were peaking I kept thinking about the onion's 'Fear of Mail'.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:04 AM on July 16 [2 favorites]


One person, tweeting under the name Tinkerpuss I will NOT be silenced! (apparently a beautician named Charlotte), was particularly vociferous, firing urgent messages at British newspapers, to no effect.

Apparently this account is suspended now, which denies me the chance to determine if they're actually a TERF or weird and hateful in a different way.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 11:23 AM on July 16 [1 favorite]


I got seeds. I didn't forget I ordered them. So did a bunch of folks I know. I'm not sure why anyone is buying this guy's theory
posted by Press Butt.on to Check at 11:26 AM on July 16 [8 favorites]


It would be a very funny and satisfying conclusion to reach, that the great mystery seed scare of 2020 was all due to common forgetfulness.

But I can't be the only who's wondering whether all these people had actually placed the orders in question themselves. Scammers, by definition, scam. Surely they'd be capable of, say, logging into poorly-protected Amazon accounts and placing small orders.

I dunno, it seems like an obvious next question and I was surprised the article didn't go there.
posted by ZaphodB at 11:28 AM on July 16 [8 favorites]


RonButNotStupid: "He gave a press conference while sitting on his horse?"

It's Texas. The Ag commissioner is issued a horse and hat upon hire, and is contractually obligated to use both in every public appearance.

The horse, by the way, gets a bigger pension than he does upon retirement. True story.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:29 AM on July 16 [11 favorites]


Was anyone else on a horse?

Texan stables infamously send complimentary horses to every press conference, it's a trick to artificially inflate their online reputation
posted by Western Infidels at 11:35 AM on July 16 [15 favorites]


i used my last free atlantic article & skipped to that last paragraph

I so badly wanted to post the last paragraph as the description for this post; it's such a wonderful ending.
posted by dhruva at 11:43 AM on July 16


They forgot because of 5G. Open your eyes people.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 11:48 AM on July 16 [7 favorites]


Seeds aren't any more likely to give you some mystery super-virus than anything else.

I choose to believe that the Ag commissioner was concerned about importing foreign viruses that infect agriculture, not humans.
posted by pwnguin at 11:57 AM on July 16 [2 favorites]


Also, fuck this guy

Surely you mean, fuck this guy and the horse he rode in on.
posted by biogeo at 11:59 AM on July 16 [72 favorites]


My brain tried really hard to hang on to "it was both", despite the complete lack of evidence for anything but forgotten orders. Misdelivered items are an equally reasonable speculation as brushing is for the occasional case where a person truly didn't place an order themselves, but without evidence, it's just that, speculation.

I can say with certainty that i would have found the whole thing less weird if I had been aware of the massive increase in seed sales at the time, though.
posted by wierdo at 12:02 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


I mean, the least surprising thing is that an order from China lies on its export form. Even when I'm ordering $1 items that would clear customs no problem, they usually say something like "$5 Costume Jewellery" on there anyway, it seems they lie on those forms out of force of habit (or, more likely, just pre-print the labels with lies on them to save money).

Given how widespread it was, and the fact you think SOMEONE would have checked this, I wouldn't be supervised if it was both? Like, a small brushing scam with a few people makes the news, then when people's forgotten seeds arrive BOOM mystery.

Seems like in terms of regulation it will be a good thing long term, since we are no longer getting random seeds from China that may or may not be what the person meant to buy (or even if they did, could contain an invasive species). That said, I think plenty of invasive species are regularly sold at garden stores, so...*shrug*
posted by Canageek at 12:11 PM on July 16 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure why anyone is buying this guy's theory

Because he actually did research that supports it, and presented said research in the article.
posted by primethyme at 12:43 PM on July 16 [29 favorites]


This week's Bob the Angry Flower seems to have been written for this.
posted by scruss at 12:45 PM on July 16 [2 favorites]


outside in a briefing field is an enticing sock same.
posted by riverlife at 12:54 PM on July 16


I'm not sure why anyone is buying this guy's theory

It's also Amazon's theory per the article, but they don't want to come out and say anything negative about their customers so they kept it pretty quiet.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:13 PM on July 16 [4 favorites]


More precisely, I didn't get why so many were buying it as a full explanation. Apologize for the hyperbole
posted by Press Butt.on to Check at 1:26 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


Re: stud earrings:

Shipping plant materials into or out of the U.S. normally requires the shipper to have gotten a phytosanitary certificate, showing that the material has been inspected and found free of disease, hitchhiking insects, or whatever. They're expensive (~$80 last I knew, even if you're only sending one small package), and the traditional workaround in the horticultural field is to claim that you're sending something else, ideally something of similar size / weight / hardness, knowing that Customs can't check everything and your item will probably get through. Which is how you get "stud earrings."

When Customs does catch something, sometimes they will just take it and destroy it and you find out because the item never arrives; on occasion, they will remove the plant material but deliver the original package, with a note to the effect of "we found your plant material and destroyed it."
posted by Spathe Cadet at 1:35 PM on July 16 [5 favorites]


I have definitely disappeared down a lot of random rabbitholes online that I forgot about instantly when I closed the tab. And I know that some people who live in places with cheap or free shipping spontaneously order stuff online after having a random thought after reading something random online. I do this with digital purchases. I periodically have to do a forensic investigation to check which of my Kickstarter rewards I have actually received and downloaded. And I've seen screenshots of a lot of nightmare customer service interactions in which a very insistent customer is very sure that up is down and Wednesday is purple.

Putting all those things together, I can totally believe this, especially if you assume that we're seeing a lot of selection bias (we aren't hearing from all the people who remembered that they ordered seeds, or who ordered other pandemic-inspired stuff and forgot).
posted by confluency at 1:35 PM on July 16 [2 favorites]


Surely you mean, fuck this guy and the horse he rode in on.

No.....I don't mean that.

Do we actually know if he even rode in on the horse? Also, it wasn't the horse who blamed China for Covid.

Unless you've found incriminating evidence on the horse's social media presence, leave the horse out of this.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 1:39 PM on July 16 [10 favorites]


Possibly the best thing I've read this month. I hadn't heard about this phenomenon originally, so I enjoyed all the ups and downs and especially the twist at the end.
posted by BekahVee at 1:42 PM on July 16


I read the whole article in the hopes that some character from xkcd was real and was just mailing everyone seeds for fun and plant diversity.
posted by aniola at 1:43 PM on July 16 [4 favorites]


I mean, the least surprising thing is that an order from China lies on its export form. Even when I'm ordering $1 items that would clear customs no problem, they usually say something like "$5 Costume Jewellery" on there anyway, it seems they lie on those forms out of force of habit (or, more likely, just pre-print the labels with lies on them to save money).

taquito boyfriend orders lots of seeds from various places on purpose & our favorite customs note so far just said "spoon"

like clearly upon handling this is dozens of separate small light objects and not one spoon but apparently there is no one whose job it is to care
posted by taquito sunrise at 1:54 PM on July 16 [13 favorites]


@Press Butt.on to Check - are you and your friends who received seeds gardeners?

Maybe it was a trick by the journalist but it's not credible to me that everyone who received these supposedly "brushed" packages had a garden.
posted by muddgirl at 3:05 PM on July 16


henceforth the phrase "Chinese melon-seed horse" shall be equivalent to the phrase "milkshake duck"
posted by glonous keming at 3:11 PM on July 16


So long as I live, I will never understand why some people are so ready to believe that anything foreign must be some kind of devious threat.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:21 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


The seed sellers are probably using Chinese drop shippers. Drop shippers are the ninth circle of Amazon hell.

Back when I was ordering used textbooks for the school where I work, I’d order many copies from different sellers, and some of these used drop shippers, SELLING A BOOK NOT ACTUALLY IN THEIR POSSESSION but buying a copy from another seller who shipped to us. (This practice should be outlawed. The profit margin had to be minimal.) Keeping track of these purchases when they arrived was pure hell because the seller on the receipt and the order number were not the same as my original order. I often ended up having to guess which copy had arrived vs the non-drop shipped orders.

The Chinese drop shippers of seeds added to the confusion by mislabeling their seed packages as jewelry findings to evade US customs.
posted by bad grammar at 5:52 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


It's likely that if you order an item that is shipped to you by drop shipper, and you forget about the order, you then are unable to find it by the receipt order number in your order history and your response is "??????" You might think that strangers are sending you things as a scam or as evil conspiracy theory of the month.
posted by bad grammar at 5:56 PM on July 16 [2 favorites]


I remember thinking it would be lovely to get an unexpected package of seeds in the mail. When I did order some this season they arrived the next day. Different issue. But I have a currently flourishing and un-bunny-chomped pumpkin plant!
posted by sammyo at 8:46 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


The combination of brushing and forgetting genuine order seems very plausible.

I've certainly ordered things late at night and completely forgotten about it until they arrived. Lord knows, any amusement was welcome during lockdown, and I would have welcomed mysterious seeds. There was fairly minor kerfufflle about these in the UK (mainly in the Daily Mail), but no big conspiracy theories that I know about, possibly because people here don't generally think that the entire population of China is out to get them. My main takeaway from this is not to ever order anything from Amazon except books or music.

That said, I was a little disappointed not to have recived a mystery package of seeds from China during lockdown, and I would have certainly have planted them, hoping for something really exciting, like a 12 foot Venus fly0trap.
posted by Fuchsoid at 9:01 PM on July 16


I received seeds I didn't order; but I did order a bunch of other gardening related things towards the beginning of the lockdown, as did many other people, to plant kitchen gardens. If there was some kind of semi-automated brushing happening targeting 'gardeners' then maybe it wasn't rate limited and sent out tons more than usual before noticed. Especially if some of the ways it's detected is based on consumer profiles; seeds are something I might buy online.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:04 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


Our household recieved unsolicited seeds, as well as a few other items, none of which we ordered, but did seem to fall under the brushing category when we reached out to Amazon to find out what was going on. We lived in an apartment without any access to gardening, so had no garden related purchase history, either. It was very perplexing.
posted by foxtongue at 5:55 AM on July 17 [2 favorites]


I like mystery seeds. If someone would like to send me mystery food seeds appropriate for poor soil in Northern California, memail me and I'll give you my address. Any type of plant is welcome, just tell me what size to expect when it's full-grown. If anyone would like mystery seeds, memail me and I'll send you some.
posted by aniola at 10:06 AM on July 17


@Press Butt.on to Check - are you and your friends who received seeds gardeners?

I consider myself primarily a weeder ;) but yes all of us gardeners of some sort, all of us concerned with promoting natives and removing non-native invasives.

I have ordered gardening products on Amazon and I do a lot of (just) browsing products there. My order history shows I purchased a grass/clover seed mix in April 2020. It arrived promptly. I have never ordered anything other than grass/clover and never anything in packets like the mystery seeds, only in sizes greater than 3lbs. I have ordered vegetable seeds online once years ago that I recall.

In general I am pretty meticulous about sourcing what I plant and, as mentioned above, plant little vs pull lots (especially little from seed). I would not order seeds on a whim no matter how easy or free. I believe my friends are likewise but do not know specifics.

It was disconcerting to see random, mysterious and, yes, foreign seeds show up on my doorstep. There's a shitton of ecological resilience work made harder by the inevitably of some seeds getting laid. For me it happened after seeing rumors on Facebook and right around when local natural resources agencies were confirming widespread reports. My wife and I did as requested: kept them and the packaging for a bit, then double-bagged and landfilled when the Amazon rating scam became the accepted explanation.

And, yes absolutely, large swaths of the reaction to the episode was deeply entwined with racism and the pandemic. That includes people in the native gardening community but not to my knowledge anyone I know personally. All the more reason I was happy to trash them, forget them, and move on to the next 2020 adventure.

Until today when I learned the Amazon scam is referred by some as "brushing" and that, apparently, some peoples' despair of humanity is further fueled by my continued belief that that is what happened to me.

Ok. I share your despair for the most part, if not all the reasoning. Let's act.
posted by Press Butt.on to Check at 10:26 AM on July 17 [3 favorites]


"The return address seemed less a postal coordinate than a clue from some magical-realist fable: “North side of the west gate of South China Avenue, Longgang District, Shenzhen.”" is a nice sentence, but the address would be really mundane in Chinese.
posted by of strange foe at 10:54 AM on July 17 [5 favorites]




Man, people really have no idea how plants work do they?
posted by misterpatrick at 11:30 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


Man, people really have no idea how plants work do they?

I remember when this was going around on the face books and everyone was like "Whatever you do DoN'T PlAnT ThEm!" Just thinking to myself that's what seeds are for what else are you supposed to do with them. I'm just jealous I didn't think to order a bunch of seeds and then forget about them so I could have some hot peppers or maybe a beanstalk into the heavens or Audrey III.
posted by mcrandello at 3:25 PM on July 17


“Culley had ordered three packets of seeds from three different sellers: 100 clematis-flower seeds from C-Pioneer for $1.99, 100 clematis-vine seeds from zhang-yubryy for $1.53, and 25 wisteria seeds from DIANHzu1 for $1.99. Unbeknownst to Culley, these sellers were all Chinese, based in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Changsha, respectively” (emphasis mine).
posted by trillian at 5:23 PM on July 17 [3 favorites]


I ordered some seeds from China before the pandemic, and the order got cancelled. If the evil mystery imaginary seed cabal is reading this, please renew my order. I really want to try growing a sichuan pepper tree.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:54 PM on July 17


Mystery seeds
Big ole mystery seeds
Just ain't what Texas needs
Dang-gone mystery seeds.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:28 PM on July 18


I remember when this was going around on the face books and everyone was like "Whatever you do DoN'T PlAnT ThEm!" Just thinking to myself that's what seeds are for what else are you supposed to do with them.

Do you want ants invasive species? Because this is how you get them. Even if ordered them through a reputable retailer, the fact that they are dodging the 'any foreign plants or fauna' question at customs is concerning.
posted by pwnguin at 10:11 AM on July 19 [5 favorites]


& eating is what seeds are for too
posted by Press Butt.on to Check at 11:27 AM on July 19


Yep, I ordered some regular tea plant (Camellia sinensis) seeds from Amazon, thinking it would be neat to grow my own tea bushes and then brew tea out of the leaves. A few weeks later, I got an empty mailing envelope along with the explanation from Dept of Ag saying the contents had no phystosanitary cert and has been destroyed. The Amazon seller wasn’t obviously Chinese, but the shipping envelope clearly was.

This led to about two weeks of anxiety, wondering if The Man was going to come after me for trying to import tea seeds illegally, albeit in ignorance. Happily, no such visit ensued.

So now I just buy Twinings.
posted by darkstar at 11:08 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]


Camellia japonica can be used to make tea, too. And that's kind of everywhere. It's the one that makes the huge beautiful flowers that are pretty for like a split second. (I haven't tried it because I view caffeine as a negative.)
posted by aniola at 12:31 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Something to remember the next time you're on a jury.
posted by eotvos at 6:58 AM on July 20 [2 favorites]


He gave a press conference while sitting on his horse?
I'm imagining a horseback church service, but with a bunch of press photographers uncomfortably sitting on rented horses being held by producers. They usually have wireless mikes and no podium, as I recall. (Yes, a horseback church service is a real thing. It's exactly what you imagine, though perhaps with more pooping during sermons. I'm absolutely not advocating them, though they're genuinely a more interesting than services that use pews or chairs.)
posted by eotvos at 7:06 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


One of the CA governor recall candidates held a press conference next to a penned in bear.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:17 AM on July 20


And if he truly loved California, he'd do it while allowing the bear as much open space as our flag permits bears.
posted by pwnguin at 3:41 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


I didn’t receive any seeds, but in the past year I’ve received a mysterious bag of nacho Doritos from Walmart (carefully packed with bubble padding in a box three times larger than necessary) and a mystery printer cartridge for a printer we don’t own. I definitely didn’t order either, so I find it plausible that not everyone just forgot they placed an order (I have also done that, but neither of my mystery items are things I would even have browsed, and were not in my purchase histories). I admit that the possibility of a scam crossed my mind, but I mostly chalked it up to someone’s error. We didn’t eat the Doritos, though.
posted by Kriesa at 7:15 PM on July 20


you know what the real tragedy is here

i used my last free atlantic article


Bypass Paywalls Clean (Chrome, Firefox) means I never have to worry about that any more.
posted by flabdablet at 5:29 AM on July 21


I'd just like mention that this great seed panic resulted in me not getting the $40 worth of Haworthia and Gasteria seeds that I had ordered. About 5 months later I got an empty envelope and letter telling me that my seeds were intercepted and destroyed. They were shipped properly declared and clearly labelled and I have gotten about 10 previous orders without a problem. Technically, I should have gotten an Import Permit (free - just a bit of paperwork) but that isn't why they were destroyed. They claimed that the seeds were unlabeled. They were from the Haworthia Society and there is absolutely zero chance they would be unlabeled - Haworthia collectors are incredibly picky about labels and sourcing.

I think some postal inspector was just trying to establish his Chinese Seed Fighting cred.

Dammit. There were things I really wanted to grow and now the Haw. Society is doing temporary pause on international seedlist shipments.
posted by srboisvert at 4:10 PM on July 22 [3 favorites]


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