Importing Seeds – A Follow-Up

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

Schizachyrium scoparium Nov 3 07

One of things I’m enjoying most about blogging is the opportunity to interact with you other plant geeks, through reading your own blogs as well as the comments you leave here. Mr. McGregor’s Daughter left a question in response to my post about Plant World Seeds a few days ago, asking if those of us in the U.S. need a phytosanitary certificate to import seeds from the U.K. Not knowing the answer to that, I’ve done some poking around, and what I’ve turned up is one of those good-news/bad-news things. The good news is: No, you don’t need a phytosanitary certificate in most cases. The bad news (which isn’t so much bad as inconvenient) is that you do need a permit.

Cassia marylandica seedpods Nov 3 07Here’s my understanding of how this works for us home gardeners: You apply to the USDA for a free permit to import “small lots of seed,” and they send you back the permit and a bunch of mailing stickers. When you send an order to an overseas seed vendor (or trade with an overseas buddy), you include a copy of your permit and the mailing label, which the vendor attaches to the package. The seeds then get sent to an inspection station in the U.S., where they’re checked and then sent on to you if they meet all the rules. So, what happens if you don’t choose to follow these rules? Apparently, if Customs intercepts a shipment without the label and permit, they can seize and destroy the seeds, and you’re out the money you spent.

It sounds complicated, I guess, but honestly, it took hardly 5 minutes to fill out the permit application to send in by snail-mail. You can apply on-line instead, though the process of getting access to the on-line application seemed a lot more complicated than the form itself. I don’t know yet how long it’ll take to receive the permit; I’ll report back when mine arrives. I’ll also be curious to find out how long the inspection process will delay receipt of the seeds.

Vernonia seedheads Nov 3 07For official details on the Small Lots of Seed permit, check out this page at the USDA/APHIS site. Still confused? There’s a much easier-to-understand explanation here at The Seed Site (be sure to read the FAQ page too). Now, go back to the USDA site and print out the permit application form (PPQ Form 587), or jump through the hoops to access it on-line, starting here. Instead of trying to guess exactly what kind of seeds you might possibly order over the next 3 years (the lifespan of the permit), you can write “eligible taxa.” That allows you to order whatever strikes your fancy, as long is you make sure it isn’t something that’s expressly forbidden. How do you know that? The USDA has the official regulations here, but for a much more useful reference, check out this list created by the North American Rock Garden Society.

Isn’t that way more than you ever wanted to know about importing seeds? Yeah, me too, kind of. But still, it’s worth knowing how to do it right, and if this is what it takes to order from Plant World Seeds, Chiltern Seeds, and the other great seed sources outside of the U.S., trust me—it’s worth it!

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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Thomask November 3, 2007, 10:48 pm

Hi. Living in the US, I’ve ordered seeds from Chiltern’s a number of times. Maybe the situation has changed recently, but as of last spring I never had to bother about a permit. The Chiltern people get the permit on their end and even enclose a letter to US customs in the package explaining the contents. Considering how the dollar is collapsing, the seeds are a bit pricey, but not egregious, and the company is a pleasure in every other way.

A little different experience with the annual RHS seed distribution. Not the pleasure part, but the permit. As of two years ago, a permit as you describe is needed for woody species, but non-woodies don’t require any extra paperwork. So I’ve just stuck with the non-woodies. I think I’ll do another order this year, so I’ll let you know if the situation has changed. Maybe with your good info, I won’t be such a ninny about getting the permit. Thanks.

P.S. What a great little bluestem photo. Is it possibly the most under-appreciated ornamental grass?

Carol November 3, 2007, 10:50 pm

This is great information. I’ve always just avoided looking at U.K. seed sources because I didn’t know if I could get them. I might just do this!

Frances November 4, 2007, 5:30 am

Do you know if you can bring back seed from a trip to the UK, or plants? Should a permit be obtained before going over there? I will be traveling next May and would like to bring something back. Thanks in advance for any info.

Nancy J. Ondra November 4, 2007, 10:56 am

Thanks for the comments. Thomas, I too have ordered from Chiltern and Plant World for many years and was unaware of any import issues. I believe the Small Lots of Seed permit is new as of this summer, to make it easier for folks like us to follow the rules. It really was no trouble applying for the permit, once I found the form. Please do report back about your experience with the RHS distribution. (And yes, I agree that little bluestem is a very much under-appreciated grass.)

Carol–Do go ahead and look, because you’ll find some amazing stuff. The Chiltern catalog, in particular, is worth getting just to read!

Frances–I can’t answer from personal experience, but you might find the information you need at the USDA/APHIS site here: Or, maybe another reader here has actually done this? If so, please add a comment!

Mr. McGregor's Daughter November 4, 2007, 11:10 am

Thanks for the info, especially the advice to do the form snailmail instead of online. I can’t wait to get some UK seeds!

max November 5, 2007, 4:22 pm

By the way, I have heard complaints about late and even undelivered orders because the USDA won’t pay for postage from the inspection station, and the post office insists that they need more postage even though this violates international treaties or something. They may have sorted this out by now, I don’t know.

Nancy J. Ondra November 5, 2007, 4:36 pm

Thanks for the info, Max, even though it’s hardly good news. We’d really appreciate it if you’d check in again as you hear other others’ experiences.

max November 6, 2007, 6:37 pm

The source of my vague memories was this:

(the relevant messages start at the top of this link and keep going down the page).

Nancy J. Ondra November 7, 2007, 9:06 am

Yep, just as you said, Max. I appreciate you sharing that link. I’ll poke around in later archives there to see if anyone reported back after January. Thanks again.

M Sinclair Stevens (Texas) November 13, 2007, 9:51 pm

I used to participate in the RHS seed exchange; however, in 2002 they began saying that they had trouble with the US requirements and would have to charge a fee to deal with the extra cost of the US paperwork, that is, the phytosanitary certificate.

Nice to know there is a now a solution.

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