(The Center Square) – As if 2020 couldn’t get any stranger, Illinois residents are receiving unsolicited packages containing seeds that appear to have been sent from China.
Some of the mystery seeds were shipped in white packages that are sometimes labeled “jewelry.”
The Illinois Department of Agriculture is asking residents not to open the packages, not to plant the seeds, and not to throw them out. Further instruction will be provided in the future.
Richard Hentschel, a University of Illinois horticulturist in St. Charles, said he was alarmed when he heard stories of the seeds from across the country.
"My immediate mantra in all of this is: 'Don’t open, don’t plant,'" Hentschel said. "It would be silly to get that stuff in the ground not knowing anything about it."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investigating the mystery seed shipments along with the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, other federal agencies, and State departments of agriculture.
"At this time, we don’t have any evidence indicating this is something other than a 'brushing scam' where people receive unsolicited items from a seller who then posts false customer reviews to boost sales," the department said in a statement. "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."
Osama El-Lissy, with the Plant Protection program of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said investigators have so far identified 14 different types of seeds including mustard, cabbage, morning glory and some herbs, such as mint, sage and rosemary.
Ken Johnson, U of I Extension horticulturist in Jacksonville, said it would be dangerous to plant the seeds.
“We don’t know what they are, so there is a potential that the plants these seeds are coming from could be invasive,” he said.
Johnson said the timing is bad because the extension is currently sending out wildflower seeds to remind residents to fill out Census forms, but those packets will be clearly marked by the extension.
Anyone who receives unordered seeds in the mail is being asked to contact the Illinois Department of Agriculture via email at email@example.com and include their name, phone number and the number of packages received.
An official reported the department has received 500 emails so far.