Albion Monitor /News

Boom in Florida as Weed is Harvested as Natural Cure for Prostate

by Cindy Spence

Natural remedy for inflammation caused by prostate enlargement

GAINESVILLE -- To a native Floridian it sounds downright silly, but a French company is thinking about establishing farms to grow saw palmettos.

That's right, the lowly saw palmetto.

Previously viewed by most Floridians (if they thought about it at all) as a weed, the saw palmetto is enjoying new-found fame -- and fortune.

Raccoons, black bears, opossums, coyotes, field mice and other denizens of Florida flatwoods and scrub have dined on saw palmetto fruit, often referred to as berries, for years. Now it turns out that the berries are a natural remedy for inflammation caused by prostate enlargement and their value has skyrocketed, two University of Florida researchers say.

"In years past, we've seen the berries sell for 10 cents to 30 cents a pound," said Associate Professor Jeff Mullahey, a wildlife and range scientist with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "This year, the plants produced fewer berries and the price hit $2 a pound and then $3.15 a pound at the peak.

"Everybody and their brother started heading out into the fields," said Mullahey, "whether they were private fields or public."

Little studied because it wasn't thought important

Many of the novice berry-pickers saw the berries as a get-rich-quick scheme and crashed into the underbrush without realizing they were hiking through prime rattlesnake habitat, said wildlife ecology and conservation Professor George Tanner.

In their zeal, four berry-pickers died of rattlesnake bites and one drowned crossing a canal, said Mullahey, who is based at the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee, where much of the action on the saw palmetto front has taken place.

While some Palmetto stands are accessible simply by stopping a car alongside a two-lane road, much of the prime range is miles from nowhere in the middle of South Florida flatwoods, meaning help is hard to come by if berry-pickers run into snakes or other trouble, Mullahey said.

The French company that contacted Mullahey about establishing saw palmetto farms imports 800,000 pounds of the berries a year, with virtually all of the berries coming from South Florida. With prices shooting up, the berries could become a $20-million crop for Florida, Mullahey said.

Tanner and Mullahey plan to begin research on the saw palmetto fruiting biology soon. Tanner said the plant never received a great deal of scientific study before because it was never considered ecologically important enough, either as a beneficial plant or a pest.

Now that the free fatty acids in the berries have been shown to relieve inflammation from prostate enlargement, more study is certain and several South Florida landowners could stand to become berry barons.

"I've had one landowner call me wanting to know how to boost berry production," Mullahey said. "It's about to become a big business."

Mullahey and Tanner point out that people who pick the berries on private land need the landowner's permission. Otherwise they are stealing, as well as trespassing.

"When they were 20 cents a pound it wasn't a problem, no one cared a great deal," Mullahey said. "Now, it's become a commodity worth protecting. Trespassers are cutting fences, cattle are getting out. People who cleared their land to grow something else are now wishing they hadn't."

Tanner has researched the historical records available and has found that the saw palmetto is an extremely long-lived plant, with some estimates indicating the plants live 500 to 700 years. Current stands are more dense than historical records show, he said, probably because of a decrease in the frequency of fires as well as a shift in the season for fire from natural summer fires to human-induced winter fires.

Recent heavy rains may be responsible for the decrease in berry production this year, and will be one area for future study, Mullahey said.

As for the French farming plans, Mullahey has advised the company to look into managing existing stands of saw palmetto.

"I told them that here in South Florida we have large tracts and it may be more feasible to manage what we have," Mullahey said. "We have so much saw palmetto that I don't know that we need to create farms for it."

Albion Monitor September 18, 1995 (

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