Saw Palmetto Berries' Short Supply Fetches Tall Cash Profit

IMMOKALEE, Fla. - A secret to sexual prowess, some in the Far East believe, is the berry of the saw palmetto. This year's berry crop was not, however, satisfying.

So an uncommon urgency has besieged south Florida. Even though the plant grows in abundance from here to south Georgia, there haven't been enough berries to meet the demand.

From July through September, energetic locals, if they can abide thorn-scratched hands, have made pin money by harvesting the berries for about 10 cents a pound.

But this year for some reason, the plants' reproductive mechanism faltered. Flowers began dropping off in May, too early. The result has been only a quarter of the usual crop - and a huge demand.

Prices soared. Here in Immokalee, where the saw palmetto flourishes and the annual harvest begins, berry prices went to $1 a pound, then to $2 and, for one brief spurt, to $3.50.

Entire families on weekends beat the bushes feverishly to make as much as $200 to $300 a day.

When they had stripped the plants along the roadside, they foraged in the boonies. Four pickers were killed by rattlesnakes. Another drowned trying to swim a canal with a bucket of berries. As the price went up, they took to cutting fences and driving pickups and family vans onto private ranches.

"This is getting serious," said Jeff Mullahey, a University of Florida range scientist at an agricultural research station outside Immokalee (pronounced uh-MOCK-uh-lee). "Ranchers are up in arms. Cattle are getting out on the road and getting hit, and the farmers are being held liable for damage to the cars."

The berry market has expanded over the past decade beyond consumers who seek an aphrodisiac. European pharmaceutical companies have also been buying them to make an extract for a prescription drug to combat inflammation of the prostate.

The drug is not available in the United States, but the berries are.

The berries are dried, then sold either for export or to U.S. health-food stores, which offer the crushed-up berries as a food supplement.

Floridians mostly regard the plant, berries and all, as a damned nuisance. Literally.

They call it "the plant from hell." Developers bulldoze thousands of acres of saw palmettos every year.

A garden jewel the saw palmetto is not. It grows as high as 6 feet with long, narrow, stiff, fanlike leaves. Around the base of the leaves, guarding the berries, are sawlike, razor-sharp thorns.

Coiled into that thorny fortress, according to range scientist Mullahey, may be diamondback rattlesnakes. He explained that they have found dry refuge there above the soggy mire of heavy spring rains.

On one recent weekend, when the fluctuating price was $1 a pound, Jennifer O'Bannon, her husband and 17-year-old son Patrick managed to gather $100 worth before their hunt was dramatically interrupted.

They discovered that wild boars, who reside in the brush hereabouts, also have a fondness for palmetto berries.

"I couldn't see them, but I could hear them," she said. "I heard Patrick yell, `Hog! Huge hog! Look out! Here he comes!'

"Those guys were practically walking on those palmettos coming out of there," she said. She touched her jeans just above the knee. "That hog was this high."