Horticulturalists have issued a warning after ‘hundreds’ of British gardeners received unsolicited deliveries of seeds thought to have been sent from China.
The mysterious packages have been posted to customers who previously made legitimate seed purchases through sites such as Amazon marketplace and eBay.
But many of the gardeners were left baffled after receiving unexpected deliveries – which were not paid for – marked as ‘petals’ and ‘ear studs’, potentially to avoid customs checks.
Hundreds of British gardeners received unsolicited deliveries of seeds thought to have been sent from China, leaving many horticulturalists baffled
Government officials say they have been made aware of the suspect seeds and it is understood at least one police force has been notified.
Now, horticulturalists have warned people not to plant the unwanted extra seeds into their garden as it could result in the spread of an invasive, non-native species.
Sue Westerdale, 63, who runs a beauty business and has been growing seeds in her spare time, was among those to receive an unexpected package.
She said: ‘Because of the lockdown, a lot of people are starting to do vegetable gardening who didn’t before.
‘A lot of people have not known the best place to get seeds, particularly at the time when garden centres were closed, so were ordering through Amazon.
‘My husband and I have ordered seeds from a number of suppliers via Amazon, all purporting to be from the UK.
‘But we received a pack of four courgette seeds in a hand-written envelope from Serbia, then soon afterwards we got this bag from China that said ‘ear studs’, containing large black seeds.’
Mrs Westerdale, of Dronfield, Derbyshire, wrote about her experience on a British gardening Facebook forum and received messages from ‘hundreds of people saying they had the same thing happen’.
She added: ‘You don’t know what you are planting or how dangerous these seeds might be. Some people have been quite panicky.’
Mrs Westerdale did not plant the seeds and threw them in the bin, after double-wrapping them.
Horticulturalists have warned people not to plant the unwanted extra seeds into their garden as it could result in the spread of an invasive, non-native species
She and her husband contacted the Animal and Plant Health Agency, part of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who replied saying they had deployed a team to investigate.
The agency said it is asking people receiving the seeds to send details of any related purchase history – and forward the packages to its officials so they can study and then destroy them.
Joanne McQueen, 71, a retired pub company area manager from Bassaleg, near Newport, South Wales, who received a delivery of Malaysian seeds, said: ‘The envelope described them as stud earrings. They should never have been allowed into the country.’
Some people commenting on Mrs Westerdale’s Facebook post told how they had contacted police, who removed and burned the seeds.
Other gardeners said they had received seeds from China and Malaysia wrongly labelled as ‘petals’ and ‘decorations’.
Charlotte Davenport, a fellow member of the gardening forum, said she and her partner also received seeds marked as ear studs – despite not having ordered any seeds online.
In a warning to other gardeners, she wrote: ‘Invasive species are extremely concerning. Please keep hold of your seeds and delivery packets to report and don’t bin the seeds as they may be needed for investigating. If you do want rid of them – crush and burn (them).’
Tracy Ryan added: ‘Someone sent me seeds from China. I’ve burned them. God knows what’s come in with them. I think we’ve all had enough of Chinese “imports” this year!’
The Westerdales contacted North East Derbyshire Tory MP Lee Rowley, who said he had been approached by other constituents with similar stories and offered to raise the issue with eBay and Amazon.
Imports of seeds and plants into the UK from outside the European Union require a certificate confirming they are safe.
The Royal Horticultural Society said importing plants and seeds ‘poses potential risks of introducing new pests and diseases’.
Prof Ian Rotherham, an expert in environmental geography at Sheffield Hallam University, said: ‘Presumably the labelling is so the seeds get through customs unchecked – although it is difficult to understand why they are being sent if they are not being paid for.
‘It may be that the seeds are of species we don’t want here. You don’t know what is going to come up – it could be potentially invasive.
‘There’s a security issue as well, if people are receiving something they haven’t ordered. How did those responsible get people’s names and addresses?’
Prof Rotherham warned gardeners: ‘Whatever you do, don’t grow them.’
If packages are not sent to investigators, he urged people to burn them or wrap multiple times before disposing in the bin.
Minister for Biosecurity, Lord Gardiner of Kimble said: ‘I encourage all gardeners to support our efforts and to buy from reputable sources, such as a local garden centre, to be certain that any bulbs, seeds or plants are not harbouring a potential pest.’
The Royal Horticultural Society said importing plants and seeds poses potential risks of introducing new pests and diseases
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it is aware of complaints about unsolicited Chinese seeds.
It said it makes ‘in the region of 1,000 interceptions a year’ of unauthorised plant deliveries from overseas, mostly due to online plant sales.
DEFRA officials are working with Border Force and Customs representatives, ‘using intelligence gathering and profiles of exporters to intercept material at points of entry’.
A spokesman added: ‘We are working to raise awareness with sellers and customers of the legal requirements and the need for increased biosecurity.’
Amazon said last night an undisclosed number of sellers have been suspended from trading via its marketplace after an investigation.
The company said sellers are required to abide by laws and regulations, and that it monitors sellers to ensure compliance.
A spokesman said: ‘These are isolated incidents that do not reflect the fantastic products and customer experience provided by millions of small businesses selling in our store.’
An eBay spokesman said: ‘If an item has been ordered from the UK but posted from a different country than stated in the listing, this is against our item location policy.
‘If anyone has received an unexpected delivery, they should not accept it / sign for it, and return to sender. If the package is visibly from eBay, they should contact eBay customer services.’