Sunday, October 16, 2016

Whose seeds are these? I think I know

On her daily morning walks through her neighborhood, a woman in Boston has been admiring the large sunflower plants that some neighbors have planted in their front yards. The sunflowers of one neighbor in particular lean out over the public sidewalk, which the Boston reader uses each morning.

"A few years ago, I remember that there was a spate of sunflower robberies," the Boston reader writes. "Someone was going through the neighborhood at night and cutting off the sunflowers, presumably to sell them, use them for home decor, or just be vandals."

"I'd never do anything like that," she continues. And apparently, the great sunflower robbery epidemic has been contained.

But lately, as the sunflowers begin to complete their blooms, she's noticed that many are dropping some of their seeds onto the ground. Many of these sunflower seeds are landing on the public sidewalk.

"Would it be wrong for me to scoop up the seeds and take them home?" she asks.

Years ago, I had a similar question from a reader in Cypress, Calif. She wondered if it was OK to pick lemons off a neighbor's lemon tree if the branches swung out from the tree owner's yard and across the public sidewalk. It turns out that the tree owner was likely in violation of a town ordinance that forbade allowing your trees or shrubs to block public walkways. If she had picked a lemon off of her neighbor's tree, she might not have been on the wrong side of the law, but I suggested that the right thing was to ask the owner before picking.

The sunflower case is a bit different, however. While I'd still argue that the right thing to do is to ask the owner of the sunflowers if it is OK to scoop up seeds from his plants that fall on the walk -- once they hit the walk and are no longer attached to the plant -- it would be OK for her to take a handful and feel no guilt.

The lemons attached to the neighbor's tree in California were still attached to the owner's tree. The sunflower seeds in Boston are not still attached to the owner's plant.

Even if it is OK to scoop up some sunflower seeds, however, is that the best right thing for the Boston reader to do? She might determine that if the seeds are left to lie on a public walk that they are fair game, but this is, after all, her neighborhood. If she puts herself in the shoes of her sunflower-owning neighbor, she might ask herself how she would feel if she saw a neighbor making off with seeds from her beautiful flowers. Her neighbor may want to gather up his own seeds for future use. The only way to know for certain is for the Boston reader to ask him.

The right thing would be for the Boston reader to wait until she sees her neighbor and then ask him if it's OK if she takes some of the dropped sunflower seeds. That's likely to be want the Boston reader would hope any neighbor of hers might do if the seeds came from her sunflowers. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Azalea Annie said...

Right - ring the doorbell, put a note in the the right thing!

Grandma Bee said...

Here's a good way to meet your neighbor. Write a note first, because writing it out helps you think out what you'd like to ask your neighbor in the most pleasant and cheerful manner. If the neighbor's not home, you can leave your nice, cheerful note.

You might actually make a friend out of this exchange.

Quirkybutsmart said...

There are laws in most states that cover such scenarios. Once a tree grows onto your property, usually, you have a right to remove it, or take fruit from it.

And seeds on a public walkway do not belong to anyone.