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Americans Nationwide Are Receiving Mysterious Bags Of Seeds Sent From China

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It sounds like the premise of a 1950s sci-fi film - mysterious seed packets appear in mailboxes around the country. Alien horticulturists looking to grow their pods in our backyard, perhaps? Maybe not. But thousands of Americans have been receiving them, worrying officials that, if planted, the seeds could sprout into invasive species or spread diseases, though now the theory is that it's part of a scam by online sellers to improve their search rankings. Darci Portie is a nurse practitioner in the town of Iowa, La., and she received some mystery seeds recently. And she joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

DARCI PORTIE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you've got these seeds in the mail. Can you describe the package that arrived in your mailbox?

PORTIE: It was one of the smaller, like, about 4x6 little bubble wrap envelopes. And inside of it, when you, you know, read the label it said, one bead. And so when I cut it open, it was not a bead. It was a little pack of - they almost look like mini dehydrated raisins.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did you think when you got it?

PORTIE: I was very confused.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I bet.

PORTIE: Because at first, you know, when you read the label, it said bead. So I was assuming, you know, that maybe one of my daughters ordered something off of Amazon or, you know, something like that. But then I had remembered that I had seen some post on Facebook that warned of it and said, you know, call Department of Agriculture. So I followed all the, you know, instructions on Facebook. And before I knew it, I got a return call from the Department of Agriculture telling me everything I needed to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow. And what did they tell you?

PORTIE: They told me don't touch it. Leave it in the envelope. We're going to come pick it up. And whatever you do, don't plant it. And so we left it in the bag. And the agent came and picked it up the next morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Was he wearing a hazmat suit?

PORTIE: No, oddly enough. But they did put gloves on, and they just had me drop it in another bag. The agent instructed me that they were going to - because they had so many of them - that they were going to need about four to six weeks to start, you know, the lab to get results back on what everything is because there were so many different types of seeds. But they said they wouldn't return the seeds to the owner even if they were noninvasive or no harm.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Were you tempted, though, to plant the seed sort of like "Jack And The Beanstalk," maybe, like, to see what might have grown up?

PORTIE: It is so funny that you say that. So first, let me say we would have never planted them, but that was kind of our joke around the house - was, you know, what if we do plant it? Maybe we could climb the stalk and go get some treasure or something. But obviously, yeah, we were curious to know what it would grow out. I mean, you know, like my daughter said, what if it's some kind of exotic plant that, you know, cost $100 to buy, and they gave it to us free? I'm like, I doubt. It's probably some weed, you know, that grows randomly in the yard or something.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So do you have any idea why you might have gotten the seeds?

PORTIE: No idea other than the fact that I order quite frequently from Amazon, especially with everything that's going on. That's kind of a common denominator amongst everybody who's getting seeds. But the more you sit down with it and think about it, the more that, like, all of the conspiracy theories start piling up in your head. Like, what it - did they send this to me because, you know, I'm a nurse practitioner, and they're trying to get information or, you know, something like that? You know, I don't know what it's going to turn out to be, but I think I'll be more cautious at opening things than I was just cutting that one open.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Darci Portie is a nurse practitioner in the town of Iowa, La., and the recipient of some mystery seeds. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

PORTIE: Well, thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And an update - since we talked to Portie, the USDA has removed some of the mystery, saying some of the packages have seeds for mint, sage, hibiscus, roses and cabbages. But they still say do not plant them. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.