Saw palmetto berries

Saw palmetto berries, which are a $150 million business, grow naturally in 14 counties of Southeast Georgia and are picked by hand.

Credit: The Current

Mary Landers, The Current

There’s a bumper crop of saw palmetto berries this year in southeastern Georgia. And that’s led to a bumper crop of berry poachers.

The berries, which look like olives, are used in supplements purported to treat hair loss and prostate problems, among other maladies. Globally, saw palmetto berries are a $150 million business. They grow naturally in 14 counties of Southeast Georgia and are picked by hand off the low-growing bushes. As of late August, the Georgia Forestry Commission has received 50 complaints about berry poachers. 

In response, the commission and local law enforcement agencies have issued 17 warrants, said commission spokeswoman Wendy Burnett, who also wrote about the issue in a recent blog.

During a high-yield crop season like this one, illegally harvested berries have been estimated for a loss of $500,000 to landowners. A Georgia law passed in 2020 requires proper documentation, including written permission from the landowner, for the berries to be sold. 

According to a commission investigator, landowners often do not notice the thefts until their property has been picked clean. Illegal harvesters operate day and night and may be dangerous if confronted. The commission urges landowners to report unauthorized activity to local law enforcement or the GFC.

“Theft by taking” of illegally harvested palmetto berries valued under $1,500 is a misdemeanor and is a felony if over $1,500.

Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is salt resistant and grows in all the coastal counties. Native Americans used the plant for food, medicine and basket making, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports, indicating “the Tequesta, Creek, Miccosukee, and Seminole gathered and ate the berries in late summer or fall.”

Plenty of animals also depend on saw palmettos for food, shelter or both. A 1996 study indicated saw palmetto is a keystone species in Florida where researchers found 100 bird species, 27 mammals, 25 amphibians, 61 reptiles and a host of insects rely on it.

Public lands including Dixon Memorial State Forest in Ware County, the site of research on palmetto berry production, and the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge have had problems with illegal harvests in past years. 

“Certainly that’s a problem that people have,” Burnett said. “Some of that maybe is a misconception that if it’s a public forest, you can go on and you can take things out.” 

Harvest is generally prohibited on public land and only legal with the landowner’s written permission on private land. 

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Current.