Mercer Botanic Gardens Expert Shares Tips for Avoiding Online Seed Scams

We’ve all seen the rainbow-colored roses, purple sunflowers, blue bananas, and other fantastical plants filling popular e-commerce sites like Amazon and eBay. These too-good-to-be-true offers usually feature boldly colored plants in vibrant hues that are impossible to find anywhere else.

But are the offers legitimate? Jacob Martin, Mercer’s greenhouse manager, decided to test seeds from online vendors to find out. Below, he shares his findings, along with tips to help you avoid common seed scams.

Test 1

What’s advertised: The sellers listed the seeds as jonquil, a type of daffodil with clusters of buttery yellow flowers, but they displayed a photo of a succulent-type plant that resembles a Kalanchoe tubiflora, also known as Kalanchoe delagoensis. Martin believes the image is photoshopped to make the plant appear fuller and brighter, with an uncommon blue pigment. The camera angle is also misleading. Gardeners familiar with Kalanchoe tubiflora know the plants have tube-like leaves with small plantlets sprouting from the tips.

Photo: Listing has since been deleted.

Seeds: The seeds arrived from China in a palm-sized packet labeled beads. They were small and brown, resembling yarrow seeds. Martin noted that most succulent seeds look like dust. Jonquil seeds, on the other hand, are large, black, and teardrop shaped, although the plant is usually grown from bulbs.

Sellers often mislabel plants to avoid inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Importing uninspected seed packets is illegal and unsafe. They may carry pests and disease that could damage natural habitats.

What grew: The seeds produced small, greenish-yellow plants with lacy fronds. Martin could not identify the plants, but he believes they may be yarrow seedlings in the Aster family. Only certain yarrow species are suited to Houston’s hot climate, so all plants died before blooming.

Test 2

What’s advertised: The seller displayed a photo of a sunflower with vibrant purple blooms. Although sunflowers may have blooms in shades of burgundy and purple, none have neon purple petals.

Photo: Listing has since been deleted.

Seeds: The seeds arrived from China in a package labeled beads. After inspecting them, Martin concluded they were indeed sunflower seeds.

Photo of the sunflower seeds after they arrived in the mail.

What grew: The seedlings germinated within a week and flowered within three months. None of the seeds displayed the over-saturated purple petals shown in the photo. They appear to be the standard variety of sunflower.

A sunflower planted by Jacob Martin blooms in the Mercer greenhouse.

Test 3

What’s advertised: The seller listed blue banana seeds for sale and included the photo below. Although it’s possible to grow bananas from seed, it’s rare because the sprouts will differ from the mother plant. Most gardeners propagate banana trees through division.

Photo: Listing has since been deleted.

Seeds: Martin received several packages of seeds from China that resembled grain. The label on the outer packet listed the contents as jewelry.


What grew: The seedlings germinated within three weeks. Martin later identified the plants as a type of bamboo.

Bamboo sprouts nearly a month after planting.

A bamboo plant displays more mature growth in September.

Red Flags and Tips

1. Vendors who display photoshopped plant images in unlikely hues are almost always selling fake seeds. Sometimes the same photo will appear in multiple listings but will not appear on any well-regarded website. If you’re unsure, Google the plant. Look for images taken by other sellers from different angles. “You’ll see a blue rose for sale at Home Depot before you’ll ever find a real one for sale on Amazon,” said Martin. “There’s a lot of photoshopped flowers online. They’ll use the same multicolored rose for every listing. Some of the photos look real, but the colors are tweaked.”

2. Don’t buy from a source you don’t recognize. Even sellers with good reviews can sell questionable products. Reviews can be purchased, or buyers may give good reviews before their seeds sprout. Instead, Martin said, buy from reputable commercial sellers with a long history of success. The products may be more expensive, but at least you’ll know what you’re getting.

3. Don’t be a bargain shopper. The idiom “you get what you pay for” is usually correct when it comes to seeds. Unreliable sellers can offer inferior products cheaply and still make a profit. Make sure to do your research and learn the going rate for the item you’d like to purchase. “I may pay $3 a seed for some plants,” said Martin. “You can buy an entire packet of fake seeds for that price.”

4. If a foreign seller agrees to ship seeds at a low price without a permit, they are most likely fake. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service requires permits to import seeds into the United States. Many seed dealers get around the requirement by mislabeling packages as earrings, jewelry, or other small items. “Any international seeds brought into the United States needs a permit,” said Martin. “The United States discards anything that isn’t permitted.”

The Takeaway

So, how do you find reputable seeds?

Martin suggests visiting local plant experts or nurseries for recommendations.
A few Mercer-approved nurseries include Johnny Select for vegetables, Rare Palm Seeds, J.L. Hudson, and Sheffield’s Seed Company.

“These are all reliable companies,” he said. “Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”