Amazon, Seed Scams & You: The Online Gardening Community Gets Served Penis Peppers
Yes, dumb people are falling for dumb scams—but there are some real dangers. Unsplash/Philip Veater
What do peppers that are genetically engineered to look like penises and blue strawberries have in common?
First, these fairyland fruits and veggies don’t exist in reality—but they do on the internet. Second, blue strawberries and penis peppers are both part of elaborate seed scams found on sites, such as Amazon, Etsy and eBay, to upset the online gardening community’s space-time continuum and con gardeners out of their seed money.
Beware, online gardening community, beware. Yes, there is a whole niche of scam artists whose sole purpose is to sell you seeds to obscure vegetation that doesn’t actually exist.
Yes, another weird internet portal has opened…
So, here’s a fun rabbit hole to venture down. Spend some time (or don’t) Googling “blue strawberries” and/or “penis peppers.”
Gullible people who also like to believe in trolls, fairies and Santa Claus have been taken in by this seed scam. Sure, this isn’t the Cambridge Analytic scandal or an 8Chan white supremacist chat room, but it trumpets the sleazy side of the internet filled with fraudsters, scammers and con artists—many of whom are now trying to grift $1.98 seed packets out of dumb people who want to believe strawberries could be blue.
And, in reality, do we really need our strawberries to look like Violet Beauregarde from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Do we really need our peppers to be phallic-shaped?
A key is on the listing page; sure, there are plenty of images of the blue strawberries, for example, but there are no images of the actual seed packets. That’s a dead giveaway. Along with that, note the seeds are largely being shipped from China and Hong Kong. In fantasyland, that’s the epicenter of blue strawberries.
Some of the listing sites have a backstory that the blue strawberries were created by Japanese scientists who spliced it together with a fish gene:
They’re doing it by artificial transfer of genes from a species of fish called the Arctic Flounder Fish. The Arctic Flounder Fish produces an anti-freeze that allows it to protect himself in freezing waters. They isolated the gene that produces this anti-freeze and introduced it to the strawberry. The result is a strawberry that looks blue and doesn’t turn to mush or degrade after being placed in the freezer. While they’re not in production, research is ongoing. Would you eat blue strawberries?
One Amazon blue strawberry page description tries to make the blue strawberry seeds sound legit:
-Germination rate and time: over 80%, 15-20 days.
-A new variety of strawberries. It tastes very sweet and rich in vitamin C.
-They can be grown as a pot plant on a window or balcony, or used as decoration in the garden paths.
And the strawberries shown in the photos are not just blue—but the bluest, most ridiculous blue you’ve ever seen, a blue that could possibly glow in the dark. This blue strawberry seed pages shows an image that to the trained/untrained eye clearly looks like it was manipulated in Photoshop with the “Replace Color” tool.
Need a dumb video to illustrate this point? Here you go:
These seed scam pages on Amazon are worth reading for the reviews alone. Spoiler Alert: They’re largely one star reviews.
Amazon lists Hudson Blue Strawberry Seeds that sell for a pricey $5.98 a pack.
Great story if it ends there, but there’s more…
The page shows nothing but a list of disgruntled one star reviews that reveal what happens when the scam seeds arrive. These shoppers do actually seem to receive seeds, but it pretty much ends there. Just take a peek at some of the comments.
On the penis pepper front, one reviewer posted on the listing page for Mr.seeds Penis Chili Red Hot Peter Pepper that she waited months for her penis peppers to grow but sadly only harvested regular-looking (“not even spicy”) peppers in the end, leaving her unable to surprise family members with a fresh crop of phallic-shaped peppers. Bummer.
OK, so some dumb people fell for something that sounded dumb in the first place. But according to Mashable, the potential dangers of planting seeds of unknown origin could include “inviting invasive species, pests and residual chemicals into your garden.” And the consequences can be lasting. “If the seeds were grown using herbicides, [the herbicides] can last in soil for up to three years,” organic gardener and founder of MIGardener Luke Marion explained to the outlet.
So why do these major marketplace sites sell seeds that have been proven to be fake? Another one star review begs: Why would Amazon keep this on their site?!
Amazon trumpets that the seller is responsible for ensuring seed shipments are compliant with USDA regulations, thus passing the buck on legal responsibility in case of misrepresentation. The e-commerce giant does require that shipments contain “the name of the state, country or territory where the contents were grown” as well as “a statement of the contents.”
Amazon’s policy wields no responsibility by claiming they are providing a seller platform—in the same way Uber holds no responsibility over their drivers operating recalled vehicles.
So, let’s face it, the internet is full of scammers, frauds and con artists, and they are willing to drain your bank account… one fake blue strawberry seed at a time.
Beware, online gardening community, there is a whole niche of scam artists whose sole purpose is to sell you seeds to obscure vegetation—such as 'blue strawberries' and 'penis-shaped peppers'—that doesn’t actually exist.
Inside the deeply weird fake seed scams that are all over Amazon
Blue strawberries: They don’t exist!
It’s Cheat Week at Mashable. Join us as we take a look at how liars, scammers, grifters, and everyday people take advantage of life’s little loopholes in order to get ahead.
Amazon has a well-documented fake item problem, from counterfeit versions of AirPods, books, and designer clothes to items that simply do not exist at all. Unfortunately, a packet of “blue strawberry seeds” — yes, strawberries that are blue — is one of the latter.
Many third-party sellers, whose products aren’t fulfilled by Amazon directly, are perfectly legit. Since this is the internet, though, the landscape is also rife with scams. One particularly odd corner of this fake item wonderland is the bizarre world of fake seeds — which plagues not only Amazon, but also eBay, Etsy, and online gardening marketplaces like JackSeeds.
To get an idea of what the fake seed racket looks like, enlist the algorithm. If you conduct enough searches related to “plant seeds,” you’ll start to see some weird products alongside your standard packet offerings. Blue strawberries? Rainbow roses? Peppers genetically engineered to look like dicks? These are not real plants, and yet there they are, often for under $2 per packet.
Two classics: The dick strawberry and the blue strawberry.
Generally, these listings have a few things in common. They have keyword-heavy, often confusing names (“50 Organic Strawberry Plant Pineapple-Strawberry Pineberry”), feature poorly Photoshopped images of fruit or flowers (no seed packets in sight), and boast cheerful, often roughly translated descriptions. “Produces large juicy fruit with sweet wild strawberry aroma,” reads the description for what is clearly supposed to be a penis-shaped strawberry. “Ideal for snacking on children’s gardens, balconies, and terraces.” If you place an order, the seeds will often ship from China, according to reviews.
Of course, it’s highly unlikely that these plants will come to fruition — not the kiwi-strawberry hybrids or the blue grapes or the pink succulents or the purple watermelons or the ginseng hanging from a tree. (Ginseng is a root.) If the seeds do grow, they’ll likely be weeds. A few reviewers on the dick-pepper listing said that their seeds did grow a few tiny peppers, but not anything that resembled a penis.
The online gardening community has done its best to warn consumers about the dangers of buying risky seeds on e-commerce sites. Organic gardener Luke Marion, who runs the gardening YouTube channel MIGardener, posted a video on the subject in August 2017, after receiving dozens of inquiries from people who had bought novelty seeds from Amazon and eBay but couldn’t get them to grow.
“I have to be the one to tell [gardeners], ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what they’re selling, but I would never buy those, and I wouldn’t trust them with . a penny of my money,'” he says in the clip. “I don’t know what you’re going to get when you buy those seeds, but I can guarantee you it’s not what they’re advertising. If you’re getting free shipping from China and you’re spending $1.78 . could you possibly be getting anything of quality?”
Marion also shows viewers a packet of “blue strawberry” seeds he ordered from eBay, which arrived in an ePacket — a shipping method for small packages originating in China and Hong Kong — containing a small plastic baggie of pellets (“These are not strawberry seeds; I am not an idiot,” Marion says) and nothing else. Marion doesn’t put the seeds anywhere near his garden; in fact, he throws the baggie away and washes his hands.
In an email to Mashable, Marion explained the potential dangers of planting seeds of unknown origin, which can include inviting invasive species, pests, and residual chemicals into your garden. “If the seeds were grown using herbicides, [the herbicides] can last in soil for up to three years,” he said.
eBay’s plants and seeds policy links to USDA requirements for “small lots of seed,” which states that small shipments of seeds may be imported into the United States as long as they aren’t a prohibited species, are authorized by a written permit, and meet specific packaging and shipping requirements. The least of these is where the eBay seed seller Marion encountered were most clearly non-compliant: His unmarked ePacket did not contain a single one of the following requirements:
A typed or legibly printed seed list/invoice accompanies each shipment with the name of the collector/shipper, the botanical names (at least to genus, preferably to species level) listed alphabetically, as well as the country of origin, and country shipped from, for each taxon. Each seed packet is clearly labeled with the name of the collector/shipper, the country of origin, and the scientific name at least to the genus, and preferably to the species, level. The invoice/seed list may provide a code for each lot, which may be used on the seed packets in lieu of the full list of required information. In this case, each packet must at least include the appropriate code, which is referenced to the entry for that packet on the seed list/invoice.
Unsurprisingly, eBay’s policy also states that “buyers are responsible for making sure they’re following U.S. import requirements” when purchasing seeds, theoretically to absolve the company of any responsibility should someone unwittingly plant the next kudzu when they’re trying in vain to grow the Piranha Plant from Super Mario.
Some incredible images of “rainbow tomatoes.”
Amazon, for its part, specifies that the seller is responsible for ensuring seed shipments are compliant with USDA regulations. However, it also requires that each shipment contains “the name of the state, country, or territory where the contents were grown” as well as “a statement of the contents.” A quick look at a few reviews reveals that scam sellers rarely even attempt to follow these rules. In a one-star review of “blue strawberry seeds” titled “seeds in a plastic bag,” a user named Lester said that, like Marion, they received their order in an ePacket with no information inside — just a baggie of seeds. “No way to know what I had!!” they wrote.
‘These are not strawberry seeds. I am not an idiot.’
And yet the listings stay up. There are dozens of fake seed sellers on Amazon alone, and (unhelpfully) they’re nearly impossible to trace. One prominent seller, Topark Seeds, lists seeds for outlandish plants like a grape-blueberry hybrid and teal bananas. The seller account is managed by a company called “Renzen,” which also runs several accounts selling bikes, clothing, and swimwear. (There is only one item — a $449 electric bicycle — listed on the Renzen Bikes page.) Despite the bounty of listings, Renzen seems to be a fairly new enterprise: Every single one of its reviews was written within the last 30 days. It’s possible that it’s a new version of a seller account that was previously shut down, but it could also be a fresh scammer entirely. Such is the constant ebb and flow of the seed scam universe. (Neither Amazon nor eBay responded to requests for comment.)
Another storefront, SeedsBest1, operates 51 seller accounts dedicated to fake seeds. (Some of their strangest offerings include rainbow bonsai trees and roses that are supposed to ooze blood.) The reviews page is a wild ride, with several users reporting that when they submitted questions to the seller, they received messages that were simply a random assortment of words. Others never received a package at all. And, of course, lots of people found that their seeds weren’t real. Some of these reviews are genuinely sad, written by earnest, overly trusting folks lacking in internet literacy. (A lot of reviewers appear to be older.) Other reviews are just angry.
“Not one seed grew,” wrote one user. “It’s not hard to grow onions at all.”
Still, reviews for SeedsBest1 remain, shockingly, at 65 percent positive. This is also the case for similar storefronts. It may explain why people keep buying this stuff, and definitely explains why a seed scam is a particularly lucrative enterprise. The majority of the five-star reviews — clearly written as soon as the seeds arrived — say something along the lines of “Got the package!” or “Seems great!” (These reviews are sometimes even “Verified Purchases,” amplifying the appearance of legitimacy.) Hardly anyone mentions the seeds’ viability unless their review is negative. And Amazon, of course, is notorious for fake reviews anyway.
Truly weird shit.
There’s also fairly rampant trolling in the reviews. Several five-star scores, for instance, are clearly jokes. One user with the username “Big Chungus” appeared in multiple comment sections asking if the seeds required lithium batteries.
The websites’ return policies also play into the scammers’ hands. Both eBay and Amazon only allow 30 days to initiate a return after an item has been delivered. (In eBay’s “Money Back Guarantee” policy, it’s specified that a buyer has 30 days to initiate a return if the item did not arrive as described.) But it’s likely that many buyers wouldn’t initiate a return within the 30-day window. Those who’ve been truly hoodwinked by a seed scam — that is, they’ve planted their fake seeds with full confidence that they’ll grow — may not understand their error until after 30 days have passed. One Amazon description for “rainbow rose seeds” says, conveniently, that it “generally” takes more than 40 days for the seeds to germinate.
So how can you vet a seed seller? First, it’s a good idea to buy seeds in person if you can. But if you must order from the internet, consider using a retailer you already trust rather than a Wild West marketplace like Amazon. Multiple gardening shops the online shop Johnny’s Seeds as well as the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange, which works to share heirloom seeds with gardeners across the country.
Pay attention to pricing, too. As Marion points out in his video, it’s unlikely that you’ll grow anything viable from a mysterious seed packet that costs $1.23 and ships from China for free. On Johnny’s Seeds, a packet of 50 dahlia seeds costs $4.35, which isn’t enormously different from the scammers’ prices, but high enough that it doesn’t seem too good to be true. Yes, you have to pay shipping. And no, the shop does not offer dick strawberries.
On Amazon, eBay, and other marketplace websites, fake seeds are everywhere.