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In Peak 2020 Development, Many Report Receiving “Mystery Seeds” From China

Audrey 2 in little shop of horrors

Thousands of people across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. have received packages of “mystery seeds” mailed from China. If this is the plot of the new Little Shop of Horrors, I for one welcome our Audrey III overlords.

Americans have been warned by the Department of Agriculture not to plant the seeds, after residents in at least 45 states reported receiving them. While the mind flashes to nefarious talking man-eating plants, or at least something possibly dangerous to the environment, it’s likely that the seeds are the result of a “brushing scam.” The Guardian quotes the USDA as explaining that this is “where people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then posts false customer reviews to boost sales.”

Brushing scams notwithstanding, there’s something irresistibly intriguing about these so-called “mystery seeds.” You receive an unsolicited package from a foreign address and open it to discover only an unmarked packet of seeds. This is the start of many folktales! Mysterious seeds are coded into our storytelling brains. Imaginations leap to the fantastical or frightening potential they could contain. Unfortunately, the potential is real in this case that the mystery seeds could be harmful, so people who receive the packets should err on the side of caution.

The Fresno Agriculture Commissioner knows what I’m talking about re: magic beans. But they’re right: these packets are unlikely to sprout a beanstalk that leads you into an adventure with a giant and untold riches. They’re probably a scam to falsify sales numbers, but at worst, these seeds could introduce plant diseases or invasive species.

Agriculture officials in Virginia warned that “Invasive species wreak havoc on the environment, displace or destroy native plants and insects and severely damage crops. Taking steps to prevent their introduction is the most effective method of reducing both the risk of invasive species infestations and the cost to control and mitigate those infestations.” So, yeah. You should not be planting these, folks.

There appear to be a variety of mystery seeds on offer. Some seem to be pumpkin, citrus, and radish while others may be herbs. The fact of the matter is, warnings aside, some people are going to plant these regardless, for the sheer novelty of it, while others on Twitter are flipping out that the seeds are somehow related to the coronavirus and dastardly plans organized by the Chinese government. There are two kinds of people:

And now, some words of reason from a crop scientist:

All we can say for sure is that this absolutely does seem like something that was meant to happen in 2020. Did you have “mystery seeds arrive” on your bingo card next to “aliens are probably real”?

A whole lot of marketers are kicking themselves for not thinking of this first and being able to reveal that they were in fact responsible for the mystery seeds all along. You can’t buy this kind of publicity. To the team behind the inevitable Little Shop reboot: take note.

Audrey 2 and Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors

(via The Guardian, Twitter, image: Warner Bros.)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.