Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens), is an important plant to wildlife and insects. Growing almost exclusively in the state of Florida, in lower Georgia and southeast Alabama.
All parts of the saws palmetto are used by some kind of wildlife or insects. They are eaten and used as cover and nesting.
More than 100 bird species, 27 mammals, 25 amphibians, 61 reptiles, and countless insects use saw palmetto as food and/or cover (Maehr and Layne 1996).
In the spring, the three-foot stalks bloom with small yellowish-white fragrant flowers. This attracts many insects including pollinators and the very important honey bee.
The leaves are a host plant to the palmetto skipper and monk butterflies.
In the fall the stalks give birth to berries that are high in fat content. Bears, foxes, raccoons, birds, and others eat the berries. The berries are essential for bears who have to fatten up before the denning season. Berries are on plants from August to October the prime time for the bears to get their needed nutrition. Female bears must gain a lot of weight to be able to give birth. If they do not, the embryos will not implant and no cubs will be born.
These scrumptious berries (to wildlife), can be found in the local landscape, people’s yards and all over the state. You’d think that this would be enough for our bears and other wildlife and maybe for some wildlife it is, but with bears, they need to consume a LOT. And bears only live in certain areas, so for those areas, in particular, the berries and plants are especially needed.
The berries are believed to help BPH, benign prostatic hyperplasia. Studies have found both negative and positive results when compared to a placebo. Pharmaceuticals make claims that it does help, and thus they are a multi-billion dollar industry.
This industry has created a harvesting frenzy. The pickers glean as much as they possibly can to score big bucks from the buyers who in turn make a very handsome profit form the drug companies.
Pickers actually risk their lives to gather these berries. The eastern diamondback rattler makes a home in the bushes. Bears frequent them. Biting insects as well. Then there are the over 90-degree temperatures that bring heatstroke and dehydration. The plants leaves are sharp and cut, thus the name “saw” palmetto. There are also risks of alligators if near water. But for over $1.00 a pound and at 100 pounds an hour, you do the math.
It used to be that the berries were harvested mostly by migrant workers that didn’t have a crop to pick at the time of year that the berries are ripe, but since it was so lucrative, lots of folks jumped in. At one time the berries were bringing three to four dollars a pound.
Because of the importance of the berries to particularly bears, bear advocates fought to have some restrictions placed on the harvesting.
Thus the Florida Dept. of Agriculture put forth the following:
Pickers must now have a permit from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Unfortunately, this permit is free and workers under a crew leader are not required to have a permit.
This is something that activists will be working to change in the future, along with some of the other things mentioned next.
It is unlawful to pick on any private land without the written consent of the owner along with their contact information.
It is also unlawful to pick on any public, state, city or county land unless permission is granted by the proper authority and submitted for approval on a permit application.
Buyers, transporters or processors are not required to have a permit, but they are required to have the following on their person at all times:
A bill of lading
A copy of the harvester’s entire permit, which now includes a second page that contains the permission letter(s).
Buyers, transporters, and processors are required to have a copy of the harvester’s entire permit, which now includes a second page
that contains the permission letter(s).
From reviewing posts by pickers, they report many buyers do not ask from any of these things. So, they do not have them.
This presents more governance needed by law enforcement who already have their hands full just busting illegal harvesters.
Further, The stalks that they remove will not produce blooms the next spring preventing insects and bees from having them to use.
There is no limit to the amount of berries that can be picked and it is reported that some pick 100 pounds an hour.
Pictured above a local buyer readies his haul to take to Valensa, the pharmaceutical company that is the end buyer. Local buyers set up at various locations and post their location on a Facebook page dedicated to getting this and other information out, like prices being paid. They often do not require any permits or permissions to be shown by the pickers.
So something needs to change.
The berry picking business is out of control.
Studies have not been done on the impact to wildlife yet, but it is believed that it may cause bears and others to go into neighborhoods searching for the food they need.
The saw palmetto is listed as a commercially exploited plant. This doesn’t seem like it’s a big deal since it only requires getting a free permit, permission letter and then it’s a free for all.
Between 45 and 50 million pounds of berries are harvested each year in the United States, 80 percent of which is exported, according to estimates from Valensa International, a leading manufacturer based in Lake County. Most of these berries come from Florida.
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