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Episode 82 – Fact or fiction? Spotting online plant scams

Ground Breaking Banter - Rick

Between the rapid onset of AI-generated text and images, the widespread use of social media, and very low cost of digital advertising, the amount of fake plants you can buy online has reached a new and shameful high. Digitally manipulated photos of purple variegated hostas, blue sunflowers, and tomato-red hydrangeas are nothing new – “seeds” for these fake plants have been for sale in online marketplaces for years – but now those are joined by ridiculous AI-generated, completely fake plants like this one that recently made waves on social media:
An AI generated image of a plant with flowers that look like pink and white cat faces but this is a fake plant and should not be purchased at any price.

We’d congratulate them for their imagination if they weren’t unscrupulous scammers who are trying to sell “seeds” for this “plant” to the tune of $33. So in this episode, we’re sharing some tips for telling the difference between scam plants and real ones:

  • Beware of images with a soft, blurry background – that often indicates they were made by AI. 
  • If there is no mention of a botanical name, that’s a huge red flag. If there is a botanical name mentioned (and there was in the case of the cat plant shown above), copy and paste that name into a search engine and look at the image results. Does it look anything like the plant they are trying to sell? Also be wary of any results that only show the same exact image.
  • Similarly, if the listing claims it’s, say, the aforementioned purple variegated hosta and there’s no variety listed (like ‘Patriot’ or Shadowlands Empress Wu, for example), that’s another huge red flag. Any interesting new variety will definitely be given a unique name to differentiate it.
  • Read the description: if it contains odd words that aren’t typically used when describing plants, it’s probably a scam. For example, one video for scam seeds I recently saw as a Facebook ad described the seeds as “resistant to poverty.”
  • Be way of any plants that are only available as seed. Of course, there are lots and lots of very reputable seed sellers out there, but when it comes to these made up plants, seeds are very easy to fake – sellers could send bird seed, peppercorns, spices, or even dirt or dust and claim it’s the seed. Even if they offer a guarantee, by the time you try to make good on it, the scammer is most likely on to a new website and a new scam.
  • If the seller claims they can ship the seed anywhere in the world, run! Permits are needed to send seed between countries, and certainly from other countries to the US.
  • Finally, don’t neglect the reviews! No reviews isn’t necessarily the red flag here – reviews are very easy to fake, so look for one word reviews, like “good,” overly descriptive reviews that came from AI, as well as reviewer names that seem off. One scam product I was looking at used entirely very stereotypical English-language names, like Michael White, Andrew Brown, John Miller, Jane Smith, etc. If every single reviewer name is like that, it’s probably fake. 

These are just a few of the many, many tips we could give about avoiding scams. Listen in to the episode for more, where you’ll also hear us offer to look at any plant that you are interested in and think might be fake. We don’t want you to get scammed, and we don’t want these scammers to make money, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us here for a prompt and honest answer before you pull out your credit card. 

Now, to clear the air of all that negativity, here’s this week’s Lim-A-Rick:

Lim-A-Rick or a Lim-A-Rant?

Rainbow tomatoes? Give me a break,

And it can’t taste good for goodness sake

It looks so unique

shipped from Mozambique

No return shipping for this garden fake.

 

The photo is doctored by AI

Into something we can’t identify

It offends my intelligence

Causes due petulance 

Online horticulture gone awry

 

Seeds shipped in a milligram,

come with a planting diagram,

But don’t bother digging

Cause soon you’ll be wigging

over this bogus garden scam. 

 

It’s amazing! they dramatize

You won’t believe your eyes!

It’s plant science fiction

Horticultural dereliction

You’re in for a big surprise!

 

A polka dot luscious blue pear

Where’s it from? Buyer beware!

Put away your credit card

It’s gonna fail in your yard

And make someone a millionaire. 



Why: Many plants can look kind of fake, especially in photographs. It may be because their foliage is really thick and glossy and looks plastic, or their flowers are really deeply saturated in color and/or very dense. Or sometimes, it’s simply the light and the camera angle. I thought long and hard about what I think our most fake-looking real plant is, and it’s safe to say that Invincibelle Mini Mauvette hydrangea is one of our strongest contenders.

Now, let me first of all say, it is 100% real, and we don’t alter the plants in our photos to change the color or coverage of the blooms. We want you to have realistic expectations of what one of our shrubs is going to do in your yard, so it wouldn’t be helpful to either of us to be deceitful. And there is actually  reason why Invincibelle Mini Mauvette looks kind of fake, and that’s that it is a triploid plant. “Triploid” means it has three sets of chromosomes instead of the usual two, and those extra chromosomes literally cause the cells to be larger. It can manifest in plants in lots of different ways, but one of the most common traits it creates is thicker leaves, stems, and flower petals, and that is certainly the case in Invincibelle Mini Mauvette. When you are in the garden center this spring, take a look at it next to other smooth hydrangeas and you will immediately see the difference – it’s even more obvious once it has been planted in the landscape. Foliage is much thicker and darker than others, with very pronounced serrations around the edge. Stems are some of the sturdiest you’ll find on any smooth hydrangea – seriously, they’re like rebar. And the flowers are dense, a very deep purple-pink, and perfectly round pompoms.

If you aren’t familiar with the term “smooth hydrangea,” you’re probably familiar with “Annabelle hydrangea,” because that classic variety established the entire genus of Hydrangea arborescens as a garden classic. But smooth hydrangeas have come a long way since Annabelle hit the market in the 1960s, as evidenced by Invincibelle Mini Mauvette. It could hardly be more different while still maintaining the same reliability: it’s 2.5-3’ tall instead of 4’+. Its stems are thick and very, very sturdy, whereas, as many people can tell you, Annabelle is laying on the ground after a strong summer storm. And, perhaps best of all, the flowers are a deep purple-pink instead of just white. White flowers are great and they certainly have their place, but it’s nice to have some other options as well.

Invincibelle Mini Mauvette is just as easy to grow as Annabelle – it can take full sun in cool climates if it is mulched and gets water during very hot, dry periods, and does best in shadier spots in warmer areas. It blooms on new wood, so pruning is easy: just cut it back by about one-third its total height in late winter/early spring. One big difference besides the flower color is that Mini Mauvette is a bit less hardy – USDA zone 4 instead of zone 3, which we believe it related to the triploid characteristic.

Invincibelle Mini Mauvette hydrangea comes to us from the breeding wizardry of Dr. Tom Ranney at NCSU.

If you’d like to add  Invincibelle Mini Mauvette hydrangea – or any of the 320+ Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs – to your garden or landscape, you’ll find a list of local retailers here

Gardening Mail Bag - Stacey

Yes, Jamie and Geno, you did the right thing, and we are so glad we could help! Your hydrangeas are indeed big leaf hydrangeas which already have their flower buds for this summer. Now that they are leafing out, you can safely prune out the portions that aren’t showing signs of life any time. Now would also be a good time to remove any old flowers that might be clinging to stems as well. One quick note, though – you’re not quite out of the woods yet. These next few months are what I call the “hydranger zone,” because they can be particularly perilous. Now that the buds have started pushing, the tiny flower bud deep within them is increasingly unprotected. So if you get a late season frost or freeze, which is very common in the Midwest and Northeast, it could kill the flower buds. So keep an eye on the weather and any nights where the temperature is going to dip much below 34°F, drape an old blanket or towel overnight. It can be removed the next day when the weather has warmed. Repeat as necessary, and only use cloth – no plastic. You should be on your way to a floriferous 2024!

A dormant hydrangea plant with bare branches surrounded by small gravel. A dormant hydrangea plant with bare branches surrounded by small gravel.

Great question! Red (and yellow) twig dogwoods, Cornus sericea, only show colorful stems on wood that is around two years old or less. Once it gets much older than that, it starts to develop corky bark that obscures the color. There’s nothing wrong with letting this happen, but if your goal is maximum color, then you will want to prune it to keep the wood young. There are two approaches you can take, depending on your landscape and the look you are going for. One, you can do what you are suggesting and cut the entire plant down to stumps each late winter/early spring. This practice is known as coppicing – we did an episode on it not too long ago. This will keep your plant on the smaller side and give it a more uniform color, but it does mean you’ll go several weeks with nothing but stumps to look at. The second approach is to take out one-third of the oldest growth each year. Start the process once your plant reaches its third year or so and use loppers to remove those oldest branches each year in late winter/early spring. This ensures that there is always young wood on the plant for color, but eliminates the stump period. One really nice advantage to this method is that the two-thirds of the plant that you leave will flower and fruit, both of which are attractive.

Do you have a question for us? We’re happy to help! E-mail us or use the contact tab above. Due to high volume, we may not get to your question, so if you need an answer quickly, please reach out via the Proven Winners website.

Branching News - Rick

We’re thrilled to be joined once again by the one and only Birdman Bill Stovall of Stovall  Wood Products, a manufacturer of bird-first bird houses and feeders. In this episode, we focus specifically on bird housing since nesting season is here. Tune in at the YouTube link above or on your favorite podcast platform to learn about keeping invasive European sparrows out of your houses so desirable birds can move in, and when to clean your birdhouses to get them move-in ready for the next resident.

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