Saw palmetto berries - Levy County's new cash crop?

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By Ada Lang

You may have noticed orange berries on your saw palmettos that are turning black, and in some cases drying up. What on earth could they be used for?


Katherine Dunlop, who owns 40 acres, just off CR 347 near Cedar Key, got a lesson last week when Ricky Martinez of Naples and Enselmo Alvarez of Imokolee came onto the property she owns with her husband, Greg McCandless, and asked permission to have their crew pick the berries off their abundant saw palmetto clumps. 

Their answer was yes, and a crew of about a half dozen men headed into the scrubby areas of the property the next day. By the end of the day, they had a pickup truck that was sagging under the weight of about an estimated 4,000 pounds of ripe berries.

Sound impressive?  Some years, the pickers are paid up to $1.50 a pound. However, this year they are only making about 16 cents a pound. Due to the number of men who are currently out of work, the price has been pushed down. According to the University of Florida’s IFAS website, the price of the raw fruit spiked to over $3 per pound in 1995.

Dunlop learned that this year the best and most plentiful palmetto berries are at an area east of Interstate 75. The crop is not as good in the Ocala area this year, as in the past. Last year, the Palmetto berries were plentiful east of Interstate 95 in the Daytona and West Palm area.

The berries eventually are sent to Japan where the seeds are ground up and used to make the Saw Palmetto supplement, which is thought to help prevent prostate cancer and considered by some to be an aphrodisiac. The skins are used for making shampoo. Martinez said that they rarely encounter snakes or alligators, however the men did wear gloves because they strip the berries off the stalks by hand.

Martinez and Alvarez find properties that potentially have abundant saw palmettos and asked permission of private land owners to pick on their property. They were able to pick this truckload in one day and  deliver it to a distributor in Chiefland. The palmetto berries follow a route from Chiefland, to south Florida, Japan and beyond.

According to IFAS, the saw palmetto berry has been consumed by Florida aborigines for centuries, although the oily, ripe black berries reportedly tastes “repugnant.”

Harvesting the berries could be considered a sustainable crop because the plant is left intact during the harvest.  Stem growth is under one half inch per year, so using that to estimate age, scientists have determined that some plants are between 500 to 700 years old. 

On Cedar Key, some of the largest palmettos are in a front yard on Jernigan Ave. and behind the state museum, where stems well over six to eight feet are not uncommon. 

Black bears, feral pigs, gray foxes, raccoons, opossums and deer are particularly fond of the berries, and many animals are known to nest in the clumps. Cows and some horses enjoy eating the fronds in the winter, as well. According to IFAS, seed germination may be enhanced after passing through the digestive systems of the animals who eat them. 

The palmettos are becoming more popular in landscapes that feature primarily native and drought and pest-resistant plants that do not require fertilizers. Many nurseries are raising them from seed to meet the demand.

IFAS adds a cautionary note to berry harvesters on its website: “Landowners wanting to manage for game and/or nongame wildlife populations on their property may not want to harvest all the saw palmetto fruit produced each year. Most omnivorous wildlife species seek out the fruit whenever it is available. It is presently unknown what effect total removal of these fruit year after year may have on the resident wildlife populations that inhabit the property.”

(Thanks to Katherine Dunlop and Greg McCandless for the photos and information used in this article.)