Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens, Arecaceae) is a conservation and sustainability conundrum. The question “Where does the supply of saw palmetto berries come from?” is answered easily. Nearly the entire commercial supply of saw palmetto fruit, or “berries” as they are known, is wild-harvested in Florida and, to a lesser extent, southeastern Georgia. Answering the questions “Where will saw palmetto berries come from in the future?” and “Is the supply sustainable?” is more complicated and requires an understanding of the plant’s biology, uses, trade, and threats to its survival, among other factors.*
Climate disruptions, including periods of greater precipitation intensity, rising temperatures, and higher sea levels, are long-term threats. Growing consumer demand, weather-related supply fluctuations and shortages, conservation concerns, and habitat loss due to development also inform saw palmetto’s sustainability. These factors, combined with the species’ pollination biology, population dynamics, plant ecology, and long history of human use as a food, medicine, and material, will affect the long-term availability of this important botanical.
Bennett and Hicklin described saw palmetto as the most versatile economic plant in Florida. It provides medicine and food (as dietary supplements) and historically has provided food, fiber, oil, medicine, wax, and roof thatch, among other economic products.1,2
Saw palmetto berries and their extracts are best known today for their use in phytomedicines to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) and dietary supplements used to support prostate health. In January 2000, a United States Pharmacopeia-National Formulary (USP-NF) monograph on standards of identity and quality of saw palmetto extract and powdered fruits became official. Shortly thereafter, in April 2000, the USP published a Dispensing Information monograph on the therapeutic use of saw palmetto. In the same year, Consumer Reports, in a two-page article on saw palmetto’s role in treating BPH in men, concluded that the “evidence is rather impressive.” This was one of Consumer Reports’ rare positive assessments of a botanical dietary supplement.3-6
The American Botanical Council (ABC) has been at the forefront of reporting on the science of various aspects of saw palmetto since the organization’s inception in 1988. In 2000, ABC initiated a Saw Palmetto Education Project and this article is part of that effort. Recently, ABC’s Sustainable Herbs Program (SHP) also has produced educational materials, including webinars and blog posts, related to saw palmetto sustainability.7
In 2018 and 2019, the ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP) — a collaboration among ABC, the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP), and the National Center for Natural Products Research (NCNPR) at the University of Mississippi — published a Botanical Adulterants Prevention Bulletin8 and Laboratory Guidance Document,9 respectively, on saw palmetto. Both publications provide methodologies for identifying adulteration of saw palmetto extracts with various vegetable oils and fatty acids of non-vegetable origin. The bulletin8 also provides an overview of the chemistry, pharmacology, and clinical studies on saw palmetto and references to important reviews and meta-analyses. Although not the focus of this article, clinical studies, reviews, meta-analyses, and pharmacological and chemical aspects of saw palmetto are also available through HerbMedPro, a benefit of ABC membership at the Academic level and above, and occasionally through the free, public site HerbMed (www.herbmed.org).10
This review will provide further background on saw palmetto’s plant biology, environmental and climate-driven sustainability considerations, historical material uses, and early documentation on food and medicinal uses. The evolution of the trade of saw palmetto berries since the late 19th century is also discussed.
“Serenoa repens (W. Bartram) Small” belongs to a monotypic genus (a genus with only one species) and is the accepted botanical name established in 1926 by botanist and taxonomist John K. Small, PhD (1869–1938).11 Searching historical information on the plant and its use requires an understanding of taxonomic synonyms in the botanical literature. Previous synonyms include Corypha repens W. Bartram,12 Chamaerops serrulata Michx.,13 Sabal serrulata (Michx.) Nutt. ex Schult. & Schult. f.,14 and Diglossophyllum serrulatum (Michx.) Schaedtler,15 among other names. Serenoa repens and Sabal serrulata (a now-obsolete name) are the most likely to be encountered in historical and modern medicinal plant literature.
The genus Serenoa was created by botanist and explorer Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817–1911) in 1883, honoring the reclusive Harvard botanist Sereno Watson, PhD (1826–1892), an uncommon use of a personal (i.e., first) name for a genus. (Plant genera routinely are named after the surnames of botanists.) However, the name Watson previously was applied to the South African genus Watsonia (Iridaceae). Though initially misspelled as “Serenaea” on pages 879 and 926 in Bentham and Hooker’s Genera Plantarum, the genus is corrected to “Serenoa” on page 1,228.16
Habitat and Distribution
Sometimes referred to as “sabal” (based on Sabal serrulata), saw palmetto is a three- to nine-foot-tall shrubby palm family member and the most abundant native palm in North America.17 It is found exclusively in the southeastern United States, from the lower coastal plains in maritime forests and acidic flatwoods in southeastern South Carolina and Georgia, to Florida, and west to coastal Alabama, with isolated populations along the Mississippi coast and a few scattered colonies in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana.
Saw palmetto most commonly is found in Florida, where it grows on hundreds of thousands of acres, especially in the eastern, central, and southern parts of the state.18 It is adapted to a variety of habitats and thrives in sandy soils, often in dry conditions. It is a dominant species in Florida natural communities, including those in hardwood forested uplands (mesic hammock, prairie hammock, and xeric hammock); dry prairies and pine flatwoods (mesic flatwoods and scrubby flatwoods); and coastal uplands (temperate and tropical coastal strands [stabilized coastal dunes]).19 In short, saw palmetto is a widespread and common plant in many of Florida’s terrestrial ecosystems.17
Epicuticular (outer-layer) wax on the leaflets causes color variations in the leaves, which can be green, gray, or bluish-silver. These tend to be regional variations found in extensive clonal patches (large areas that contain only one plant clone) connected by underground rhizomes.20 In 1966, taxonomist Harold N. Moldenke, PhD (1909–1996), described the glaucous form (the gray or bluish-green form) of saw palmetto as Serenoa repens f. glauca, a variant that forms large colonies along the east coast of Florida.21 Known as the silver form of saw palmetto, or the Florida wax palm, horticulturalists have found Serenoa repens f. glauca of interest for its unusual leaf color. Essig et al (2000) noted that this plant form produces dense clonal stands along Florida’s Atlantic coast from St. Johns County to Dade County, and inland to the central ridge in Highlands and Polk counties. A scanning electronic microscope comparison showed that this glaucous form has a waxy surface with thick, irregular patches of fused extrusion, whereas the green form has a thin layer of wax in thin, flat, peeling sheets.22
An article in the 1892 issue of The New Idea, a periodical of the pharmaceutical company Parke, Davis & Co., described the extent of saw palmetto:
This shrub is indigenous to the sandy soil of the sea coasts of the Southern States and Islands. The belt extends back into the country from six to eight miles, but the nearer the sea the more exuberant is its growth. It is the most common plant in the section of the country in which it grows, forming palmetto scrub which extend for hundreds of miles in vast, unbroken ranges. So dense are they and their leaves abound with thin, saw-like edges, that it is almost an impossibility for human beings to penetrate them. The beach extending from Mosquito Inlet [now Ponce de Leon Inlet], in Florida, to Juniper Inlet is one vast unbroken scrub 150 miles long and from three-quarters to a mile and a half wide.23
Bennett and Hicklin, quoting an anonymous 1947 paper, reported that saw palmetto populates about 10% of Florida’s land surface (1.42 million ha or 3.5 million acres). They speculated that about one-third of that land area, or about 450,000 ha (1.1 million acres) of saw palmetto, was available for harvest in 1998.1 The most recent assessment by Christine M. Mitchell, PhD, in 2014, using modern geospatial technologies, suggested that Florida has upwards of 3.7 million ha (9.1 million acres, or about 21% of Florida’s land area) of saw palmetto habitat, which includes about 804,000 ha (1.98 million acres) of dominant or prime saw palmetto habitat. Mitchell noted that since 1947, saw palmetto dominant habitat has declined by 43%.24,25
Mitchell also assessed the effects of climate change-induced sea level rise (SLR) on saw palmetto habitat. Using median SLR data from the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Mitchell reported that 59,770 acres (3.3%) of an estimated 1,795,316 acres of saw palmetto habitat could be lost to SLR by 2050. By 2100, she estimates more than 102,000 acres (about 5.7%) of saw palmetto habitat could be lost to SLR. However, using USACE’s highest SLR scenario, the loss of saw palmetto acreage due to SLR could be as high as 9% by 2100.24,25
Conversion of saw palmetto scrub into citrus (Citrus spp., Rutaceae) plantations and rangeland, surface water drainage, and suburban and urban development are significant threats to saw palmetto’s natural habitat.
A Foundational Keystone Species
Saw palmetto is a long-lived, keystone species in its many varied habitats. It reproduces both by seedlings and by clonal propagation from vegetative sprouts. Though climatically resilient, remarkably long-lived, persistent, and tolerant, saw palmetto reproduces at an exceptionally slow rate. A meristem at the terminal end of each stem branch produces a rosette of leaves. This terminal meristem is called a ramet. Takahashi et al 2011 identified five S. repens clones in a 400-square-meter study plot in Florida scrub. Using genetic analysis and mathematical modeling, the researchers found that the clonal networks in the study ranged between 1,227 and 5,215 years old. Based on conservative estimates of data collected, Takahashi et al concluded it is reasonable to assume that 10,000-year-old Serenoa clones may be common in scrubby flatwood habitats. Saw palmetto has been a dominant element in southeastern US ecosystems for at least 37,000 years, despite historical climate oscillation.26,27
Seedling reproduction is also slow. In disturbed habitats, seedling reproduction can take several decades to repopulate areas. A seedling may take between 100 and 200 years to be come a reproducing adult. Over a 19-year study, stem growth rate was measured at 0.6-2.2 cm per year, and seedling aerial growth at 3-5 mm per year.28
Saw palmetto is resilient to and thrives on fire disturbance, with fire being a critical component to stimulate reproduction of stem tips. It is both fire-adapted and fire-maintained in the scrub habitat communities in which it occurs. Given saw palmetto’s ability to rapidly recover within 36 months after fire events, shorter fire frequencies enhance its dominance over competing oak species in oak-scrub habitats.29 After fire events, increased and often-accelerated flowering occurs.30
Saw palmetto is adaptable to seasonally arid environments in nutrient-poor acidic soils. It is adapted to photosynthetic efficiency in both low-light conditions (as an understory shrub) and in full sun. It has extremely slow-growing seedlings, and human-caused disturbance to its native habitats can have long-lasting impacts. Once reduced or eliminated from its local communities, its restoration would be difficult, if not impossible, in several human generations.26,31
Saw palmetto provides food for pollinators in as much as 50% of the land area of Florida. The shallow, three-parted flowers, with six stamens bearing yellowish pollen, are important food sources for many insects. Flowers open for 3-4 days, with most pollen available on the first day and nectar during the first 48 hours. The conspicuous, abundant flowers produce nectar, sticky pollen, and a floral fragrance and attract at least 311 insect species, which transfer pollen grains among flowers in the same inflorescence or cross-pollinate flowers of nearby inflorescences. Therefore, fruit set (fruit formation) depends on insect pollinators. Saw palmetto fruit set is between 2% and 39% (the percentage of blossoms that form fruits), averaging 18%, which is a low fruit set consistent with self-pollination from genetically identical material (geitonogamy). Despite saw palmetto’s widespread occurrence in a limited range, studies on pollination biology and pollinators reinforce saw palmetto’s conservation importance in the web of ecological diversity. The species’ significance to pollinators also emphasizes the necessity for land managers to avoid using pesticides on or near land managed for the harvest of saw palmetto berries.32,33
The greatest threat to saw palmetto is habitat loss due to land development31 and other anthropogenic (human-related) disturbances or stressors, such as competing land uses or management objectives, urbanization, land conversion to agricultural use, and SLR due to climate change.24 Humans compete with saw palmetto for habitat. In 1960, Florida had about five million residents. In 2019, Florida, the third most-populated US state, had 21.5 million residents, with an additional one million residents projected every four years.34
Saw Palmetto: ‘The Plant from Hell’
Humans have exhibited a love-hate relationship with saw palmetto since the period of European human invasion and subsequent environmental disturbances in what is now the southeastern United States. In his 1848 account of the Seminole Wars, Captain John T. Sprague wrote, “The thick saw-palmetto made it almost impossible for the troops to get from lake to lake. Their clothes were torn to pieces, and their feet, legs, and hands lacerated as if cut by a knife.”35 Since the introduction of cattle to North America in 1521, 7.6 million acres of Florida wildlands reportedly have been converted to livestock rangeland. In land-use management, saw palmetto often is considered a nuisance in the face of development, as it competes with more desirable native species (e.g., for farm animals), blocks power pole and utility access, reduces livestock forage, and generally hinders livestock ranching operations. In Florida, some call it “the plant from hell.”36,37
“For these reasons, control of this common native plant is often necessary,” noted the authors of a 2012 publication from the University of Florida’s (UF’s) Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) extension. Developers bulldoze thousands of acres of saw palmetto each year. The IFAS provides details on chemical control using the herbicide metsulfuron (and others) for spot and broadcast application for control of saw palmetto.37 Another IFAS extension publication provides details on how to mechanically control saw palmetto with roller choppers, brush cutters, and web plows.38 In the 1950s, mixtures of various herbicides, such as equal parts of highly toxic 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid and 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (in equal parts, these were also the active compounds of Agent Orange), were used to control saw palmetto.39
Food for Wildlife
Over the past 500 years, the importance of saw palmetto fruits as both forage and cover for wildlife has been established, including as food and shelter for the Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus), the easternmost populations of the North American panther (referred to as the Florida panther; Puma concolor coryi), along with raccoons, rats, and at least 20 other wild mammal species, more than 100 bird species, at least 25 amphibians, 61 reptiles, and more than 300 insect species. As a keystone species in Florida’s varied habitats, saw palmetto and its fruits fuel the engine of Florida’s wildlife communities.40
Late 19th-century interest in saw palmetto as medicine was stimulated partly by observations of its value as food for Florida wildlife. In his 1898 book on saw palmetto, homeopathic physician Edwin M. Hale, MD (1829–1899), availing himself of the words of physician James Bond Read, MD (1827–1903), without attribution, recorded:
Several years ago, while on a hunting trip through the wilds of Florida, my attention was drawn to the great fattening properties of the berries, and peculiar quality of the fat of the animals that feed on them. Most animals in the palmetto region are very fond of the fruit … as the palmetto berries begin to ripen the animals improve rapidly, and in a few weeks, have acquired an enormous quantity of fat.... The berries, when dropped into water are seized and eaten with avidity by the fishes. Even water fowl and other birds frequently acquire a taste for the berries and eat them freely.41
Hale, who plagiarized the words of Read, also affected the meaning of the last sentence quoted above, in which Hale inserted “water fowl and other birds” instead of Read’s use of “the natives.” Read’s original article from 1879 instead read: “Even the natives [emphasis added] frequently acquire a taste for the berries and eat them freely.”42
As scientific evidence of efficacy of saw palmetto extracts resulted in increased market interest, concerns arose over the long-term availability of the raw material, as both a food for wildlife and a raw material for human phytomedicines and dietary supplements. As a favorite food of Florida wildlife, including raccoons, opossums, foxes, whitetail deer, black bears, feral hogs, gopher tortoises, and others, an effort was initiated in the 2010s by various Florida conservation interests to control or reduce harvest of berries, at least on public lands. Due to the reduced availability of fruit for wildlife and plant reproduction, some began to view the saw palmetto fruit harvest as “poaching” from federal, state, and private lands.8
Harvesting saw palmetto berries is cited as a factor that deprives Florida black bears of food. A recent study looked at the Highlands-Glades subpopulation of a genetically isolated bear population in the Lake Wales Ridge ecosystem in south-central Florida. The greatest impact on the bears’ food supply was the loss of more than 85% of its habitat due to urban and agricultural development. Saw palmetto berries and acorns are among the most important wild food items consumed by Florida black bears in fall. Calorie-rich anthropogenic foods (e.g., corn from hunter-dispensed deer feeders, and garbage) require less energy for bears to access than wild foods, setting up inevitable clashes between bears and humans.43 These encounters led to a myth that the harvest of saw palmetto berries deprived bears of food and drove them to seek food in suburban Florida.
Concerns about Florida black bears prompted a ramping up of statewide conservation efforts to end harvest of saw palmetto berries on state-owned lands in 2015. Concurrently, and paradoxically, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to hold the first bear hunt in Florida in 21 years. Within three days of opening license sales, 1,400 bear-hunting licenses had been issued, and the one-week hunt began on October 23, 2015. The proposed weeklong limit was for the taking of 320 bears, but the hunt was halted just two days into the season, as hunters had already killed 298 of the 320 bears marked for taking.44
In her doctoral thesis, Mitchell detailed the various dichotomies of real versus perceived changes in land use and the effects on saw palmetto berry harvesters and their livelihoods. She explored documented changes in saw palmetto habitats, land use, access policies on public and private lands, policy impacts, and the perceived conflict of harvesting the berries for human use versus wildlife food. The perception that berry picking impacts black bear food security has decreased access for berry pickers on private and public lands. Mitchell concludes that there are enough berries for bears, and other wildlife, as well as the industry. Still, questions remain.24
An Overlooked Human Food
Native groups throughout saw palmetto’s range consumed the fruit as a staple food. In 1575, Spanish explorer Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda (ca. 1536–ca. 1575) was the first known European to record the use of the berries as food by Indigenous groups in Florida. At the time of first European contact in what is now Florida in 1513, the now-extinct “Glade Indians” of southern Florida, including the Calusa, Tequesta, Mayaimi, Jaega (or Jobé), and Ais, consumed saw palmetto fruits. The Timucua and Apalachee ate fresh berries. The Alabama, Creek, Miccosukee, and Seminole also consumed the fruits.2,45 The Choctaw dried the fruits for winter consumption.46
In 1806, botanist and physician John L. E. W. Shecut (1770–1836), in his Flora Carolinaensis, recommended a cautious approach to consuming the fruits and hinted at medicinal activity, which may have been the result of microbial contamination, given that the alleged purgative effect is not reported elsewhere:
[T]he pulp of this fruit is of an uncommon sweet taste, but is possessed of such a purgative quality, that strangers are sure to pay dear for the knowledge obtained from one experiment — they are so tempting and pleasant that few can refrain from tasting, and one or two of them produces a copious evacuation, and are very apt to occasion gripings. I am of the opinion a valuable medicine might be prepared from this fruit. Swine, Deer and Bears are excessively fond of them, and as they only bear every second year, that is called the Mast year in Georgia.47
In the Western Gazetteer, intended to inform travelers of the resources and geography of newly opened lands near and just west of the Mississippi River, author Samuel R. Brown (1817), observed: “The dwarf saw-palmetto, when the woods are not burnt … bears a cluster of berries on a single stone, which are eaten by bear, deer, turkeys and Indians…. [T]hey are agreeable to the taste, sweet accompanied with bitter, and when fully ripe they burst, and the bees extract much honey [sic] from them.”48
The tip of the rhizome was a food valued as a type of “heart of palm.” In 1811, William Baldwin (1779–1819), a Philadelphia physician who moved to St. Mary’s and Savannah, Georgia, for his health, described the rhizome’s use as food in his correspondence. In a letter from Baldwin written on June 11, 1813, to botanist Henry Muhlenberg (1753–1815), Baldwin writes of “Chamaerops serrulata”: “The young shoots of this plant are far more delicious than the ‘cabbage tree’ (Chamaerops Palmetto),” referring to the heart of palm from the cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto, Arecaceae).49
In 1816, Baldwin went on a botanical excursion to eastern Florida and intended to publish a book about it. His letters and unpublished manuscript were compiled in 1843, after his death. In a letter dated December 6, 1816, Baldwin wrote from Fernandina Beach, Florida, “It is by no means generally known, that the young shoots of the Chamaerops serrulata (‘Saw Palmetto’) are also eatable—and even more sweet and tender than the former [cabbage palm]. My knowledge of this fact was derived from the late Mrs. Catherine Miller† of Dungeness, on Cumberland Island [Georgia].”49 English naturalist Thomas Nuttall (1786–1859), a correspondent of Baldwin’s, also suggested that the central part of the rhizome was more edible than the cabbage palm, crediting “Dr. Baldwyn.”50
During the Second Seminole War (1835–1842), the rhizome was recorded as a starchy food. Flour was made from the root of saw palmetto and primarily used as a substitute for Zamia integrifolia (Zamiaceae), which is known by various common names, including Florida arrowroot, wild sago, and coontie or coontia (“bread plant”), and is used as a thickener for soups with meat, or fried as batter cakes.51
In 1839, Major Henry Whiting, of the invading US Army, recorded the Seminole’s use of the roots as a survival food:
But the necessities of the war now going on, have opened a new resource to the Indians, or which, at least, does not appear to have been used by them in more abundant times. This is found in the root of the saw-palmetto, a singular species of most common vegetation in Florida, which overspreads nearly every pine-barren, covering it like a vast reticulated carpet.... Lying constantly on the ground … within a few inches of the end, where is found a nutritious pith…. This is bruised into meal and made subservient to the purposes of food. These roots spread, as we have before remarked, over nearly every barren; and since a portion of them is convertible into food, there can be no limit to the spontaneous subsistence of those who frequent them.52
The terrain, made physically impenetrable by the saw palmetto thickets, coupled with the availability of the roots as a food source, led to a strategic advantage for the Seminole that helped prevent the US Army from successfully removing all Seminole from Florida during the three brutal Seminole Wars conducted in ca. 1816–1819, 1835–1842, and 1855–1858. Although most Seminole migrated to Oklahoma after 1858, an estimated 500 Seminole retreated into the Everglades in Big Cypress Swamp. Saw palmetto berries and the soft starchy root tips served as staple foods.
In 1900, physician Sheldon Stringer of Brooksville, Florida, wrote:
Some fifty years ago, I used to go among the Seminole Indians, and with them frequently got the berries of the Saw Palmetto, and learned to become passionately fond of them; but although they brought them to their trading places for sale, I never heard them say that they used them for medicine. While hunting, with an Indian guide, through the everglades and other parts of Florida, in 1855, I tasted the drupe of this Palmetto for the first time. Seeing the Indians gather the fruit, I inquired what use they made of the fruit; he answered: “Good for eat; … good for getting many children; good for making money.”53
In the early 20th century, saw palmetto berry juice mixed with carbonated water was sold in the Miami area as a soft drink called “Metto.”54
In 1791, American botanist and explorer William Bartram (1739–1823), who encountered the plant in the 1770s, was the first to botanically describe the plant in modern taxonomic terms and coined the common name “saw palmetto.”12 He wrote: “this fruit is of the form and size of dates and is delicious and nourishing food.”12 In a 1768 manuscript of Bartram’s, discovered in 1847 and published in 1853, he described the taste of the fruits as “a little bitterish and stinging on the palate, at first using it, but soon become familiar and desirable.”55
Precolonial and postcolonial works such as Bartram’s Travels (1791) and other accounts of faraway lands served as the early-American equivalent of today’s reality television. While native groups and early Western naturalists included saw palmetto fruits among important wild foods of Florida, one famous and often-quoted travel account recorded disdain for the fruits’ flavor. Jonathan Dickenson’s (also spelled Dickinson) (1663–1722) sensationalized journal of a shipwreck on the Florida coast in 1696, first published in Philadelphia in 1699 and reprinted in numerous editions and languages,56 is among the most famous of all traveler captivity tracts from the 17th century. The title itself (expressed in the now-unfamiliar variant spellings of the period) promises a page-turning read: “God’s Protecting Providence, Man’s Surest Help and Defence in time of the greatest difficulty, and most eminent danger. Evidenced in the remarkable deliverance of Robert Barrow with divers other Persons, from the devouring waves of the sea; amongst which they suffered Shipwrack; And also, from the cruel Devouring Jaws of the Inhumane Canibals of Florida.”
Dickenson sullied any future saw palmetto may have enjoyed in haute cuisine, as stated in the 1700 London edition:
At first their Sorrows were so great, and their Alarms so many, they could not eat; afterwards their Diet so uncouth, they could not away with it; until, at length, Hunger had so far prevailed over them, that they could eat with an Appetite the Palmetto-Berries; the taste whereof was once irksome, and ready to take away their Breath [at first]; nay, so fond were they [indigenous people] of them, that the getting of about a Bushel accidentally, was look’d on as a great Prize ... and they gave us some of their Berries to Eat: We tasted them, but not one amongst us could suffer them to stay in our Mouths, for we could compare the taste of them to nothing else, but rotten Cheese steep’d in Tobacco.57
In 1884, pharmacist John Uri Lloyd (1849–1936) and his botanist brother, Curtis Gates Lloyd (1859–1926) commented on the potential food use of saw palmetto oil. They wrote: “Messrs. Solomons & Co., of Savannah, Ga., have prepared the oil in quantity and it can be obtained from them…. It will be interesting to note the effect of large amounts of the oil of the berries of the saw palmetto, and if it can be borne as a continued diet…. [Saw palmetto] oil may prove to be a food that is readily assimilated.”58
In 1921, John Uri Lloyd reiterated saw palmetto oil’s potential as a food. In a footnote he wrote: “Since the saw palmetto berries contain much fixed oil it might also be inferred that the food side of the subject should not be overlooked.”59 He observed that interest in the berries followed J. B. Read’s observations that, “They are greedily eaten by all kinds of wild animals, which become very fat in their season.” This prompted Read to suggest using saw palmetto berry oil as a substitute for cod liver oil, leading to the development of the first saw palmetto product.
Material and Industrial Uses
In the late 19th century, a market emerged for use of saw palmetto vegetative material for the tanning industry. Indigenous groups were seen to bruise the stems, then boil them in water and use the liquid to tan hides and treat diarrhea. A business in Titusville, Florida, harvested and sliced the woody saw palmetto trunk, mechanically squeezed juice from it, boiled the juice down to the consistency of syrup, and shipped it to Germany for use in the tanning industry.53 The harvest of the stem and leaves yielded one-half ton to more than one ton per acre. When air-dried, the stem and leaves yielded an average of about 13% tannins. The air-dried materials were used to make an extract that was said to produce a soft, mellow leather of a good color. In 1905, 3,500 barrels of the tannin-rich leaf extract were sold to the tanning industry.60
During the American Civil War (1861–1865), in the Confederate states, citing a Charleston, South Carolina newspaper, surgeon Francis Peyre Porcher (1824–1895) reported that saw palmetto leaves can be split into shreds with a fork or hackle, boiled, then dried in the sun for up to two days to make filling for mattresses or stuffing for pillows. Enslaved Africans were forced to weave palmetto leaf hats for use by Confederate soldiers.61 After the Civil War, an attempt was made to develop the shredded leaves as mattress stuffing fiber but proved not to be commercially viable in competition with palm biomass of African origin.62
The typical procedure to prepare leaf-stem fiber was to cut up the leaves and remove the stalks, place in a wooden vat with boiling water, and percolate the liquid, then concentrate into an extract. Chemical reagents turned the remaining biomass into a gummy accretion (an assemblage of normally separate parts). Leaf fibers separated from the gummy substance were used for rope manufacturing.62 The gummy mass itself was a key ingredient in making paper stock. The Bank of England used this paper for making bank notes.63 The leaf-stem fiber also was used as a substitute for cow or horsehair in plaster used for home interiors. This was known as Nassau plastering fiber.
In another cottage industry for saw palmetto, fibers extracted from the green leaves were used to make floor matting. Green leafy fronds were exported to Germany for decorative purposes. The carefully dried and handled whole leaf fronds were used to make a popular Victorian fan. Fibers from the leafy stem tips were used for doll making, a cottage industry that the Seminole continued. A brisk business in saw palmetto brushes also was created. The stem was cut into pieces about 10 inches in length and beaten to expose fibers to create scrub brushes. The root also was used for scrub brushes. Indigenous groups also used the leaves for thatching huts, including roofs, sides, and flooring.53,63,64
Origins of Modern Medical Use (1877–1926)
The use of saw palmetto as food sparked observations on its medicinal use. Quoting a letter received from Dr. George Wallace, of Daytona, Florida, recalling use in the 1850s (excerpted in an article on “the evolution of the saw palmetto,” in the June 8, 1900, issue of The Virginia Medical Semi-Monthly), J. C. Le Hardy, MD, of Savannah, Georgia, wrote:
[Indigenous groups and enslaved Africans] ate the berries ravenously. With us, the taste is an acquired one; at first it is almost repulsive, but generally, after a few days, one becomes passionately fond of it; it takes the place of food, is slightly stimulating, and the [Indigenous groups and enslaved Africans] all say that it is an excitant to the organs of generation and a splendid tonic and, builder up when convalescing from fevers or other wasting diseases.53
Observations by these and other physicians of Georgia and Florida led to saw palmetto’s introduction to the medical community as a new remedy, credited to James Bond Read of Savannah. Within a decade of Read’s introduction of the first saw palmetto product, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it became one of the most important native medicinal plants harvested in the South.
Introduction to Pharmacy
In April 1877, Read and Abraham A. Solomons** (1816–1899), a manufacturing pharmacist in Savannah, introduced saw palmetto to the medical profession at the second annual meeting of the Georgia Pharmaceutical Association held in Atlanta. An article by Read on saw palmetto’s remedial powers soon appeared in an 1877 issue of the Medical Brief. Read’s Medical Brief article garnered broader exposure when it was reprinted in the April 1879 issue of the American Journal of Pharmacy.42 (Sometimes, his name is misspelled in the literature as “Reed.”59) In the article, Read wrote:
In all cases where a highly nutritive agent is needed, it seems to apply well and to fulfill indications. By its peculiar soothing power on the mucous membrane it induces sleep, relieves the most troublesome coughs, promotes expectoration, improves digestion, and increases fat, flesh and strength. Its sedative and diuretic properties are remarkable. It has been used with benefit in cardiac asthma, phthisis [pulmonary tuberculosis], (especially laryngeal phthisis [ulceration of the larynx]), chronic bronchitis and dilation of the bronchial tubes. A cold in the head may be abated by two or three doses. Mixed in boiling water, and used by inhalation, it has been found very beneficial in chronic ozena [atrophic rhinitis].42
The First Saw Palmetto Products
Also in 1879, Read and the A. A. Solomons Company, wholesale drug manufacturers of Savannah, introduced saw palmetto products to the market. On October 2, 1879, Solomons registered labels No. 2112, 2113, and 2114 for an “Elixir of Saw Palmetto,” “Solomons’ Inspissated Juice of Saw Palmetto,” and “Solomons’ Saccharated Oil of Saw Palmetto,” respectively, with the US Patent Office. The registrations were published officially in the November 4, 1879, issue of the Official Gazette.65
At first touted as remedies for coughs, colds, and debility, as well as a substitute for cod liver oil, saw palmetto preparations soon gained a reputation for treatment of prostate conditions. By the 1880s and 1890s, various preparations were offered by Eclectic and allopathic drug manufacturers.
“[Saw palmetto preparations are valuable] in catarrh, chronic bronchitis, acute and chronic laryngitis, asthmas and whooping cough,” wrote the authors of Parke, Davis & Co.’s Physicians’ Manual of Therapeutics (1900). “Recently attention has been called to a specially vitalizing action of Saw Palmetto upon the glands of the reproductive apparatus—mammae, ovaries, etc.—hence the value of the drug, in atrophy of the uterus and appendages, and of their male analogues, the prostate and testes.”66
By the mid-1890s, saw palmetto products were well-established in the drug trade, with products offered by venerable and specialty pharmaceutical houses in the turn-of-the-century American pharmaceutical business, such as Eli Lilly and Co.; Lloyd Brothers, Pharmacists, Inc.; Merck & Co., Inc.; Wm. S. Merrell Chemical Co.; Parke, Davis & Co.; Sharp & Dohme; Squibb; Wyeth Laboratories; and others.
Increased demand followed for products that branded saw palmetto as the Victorian equivalent of modern-day Viagra®. Descriptions of such use were echoed in standard pharmacy and medical texts and extended to the Eclectic medical literature. Eclectic physician Finley Ellingwood (1852–1920) wrote:
In the treatment of impotence in young men who have been excessive in their habits, or have masturbated, it can be relied upon with positiveness. It will overcome the excitability from exhaustion and increase of sexual power in those newly married who, having been anxious concerning their sexual strength or ability, have become suddenly almost entirely impotent after marriage. If the patient is instructed to abstain, for from four to six weeks, and to have confidence in his ultimate recovery, this agent in doses of from twenty to thirty drops three or four times daily ... will establish a cure.67
Lloyd Brothers, Pharmacists, Inc. (Cincinnati, Ohio), describing the benefits of their “Specific Saw Palmetto” product, stated: “Specific saw palmetto has acquired a reputation for exerting a strong influence upon the sexual apparatus of both man and woman. It appears to exert a special action upon the glandular organs concerned with reproduction.”68
John Henning, MD, of Garnett, Kansas, wrote: “Last but not least, it is the remedy in impotency, especially in older men, and more especially so when combined with avena sativa [oats]. After giving this remedy to an old man for a few weeks he will be very likely to come into your office with great rejoicing over renewed manhood.”69
Saw Palmetto Combination Products
Saw palmetto products often were offered in combination with other ingredients specific to genitourinary problems such as wild oats (Avena sativa, Poaceae), corn (Zea mays, Poaceae) silk, and sandalwood (Santalum spp., Santalaceae), among others. In addition to offering “Sabal N.F. (Saw Palmetto Berries) Fluid Extract,” Eli Lilly (Indianapolis, Indiana) offered, by prescription only, “Saw Palmetto Compound, ‘A’ Elixir,” which contained saw palmetto berries, sandalwood, damiana (Turnera diffusa, Passifloraceae), kola (Cola acuminata, Malvaceae), nux vomica (Strychnos nux-vomica, Loganiaceae), and potassium acetate.70 Indications included use as a “urinary antiseptic, sedative, and diuretic. Used in infections of the genitourinary tract.”71
Eli Lilly also offered “Saw Palmetto and Santal Compound,” a non-official elixir consisting of saw palmetto berries, corn silk, and sandalwood bark fluid extracts.70 The product was advertised as a “tonic, sedative, and diuretic. Used chiefly as a genitourinary tonic and stimulant.”71 In 1892, Eli Lilly introduced Palmetol Capsules (containing 30 grains of the “best fresh Saw Palmetto Berries ... which entirely overcomes the objectionable odor and taste which has prevented its more general use”) and Palmetto Cordial (“containing 20 grains of saw palmetto and 10 grains of sandalwood), along with “aromatics.”72
Parke, Davis & Co. offered the then-widespread combination product of saw palmetto extract made from the fresh berries, (four parts), corn silk extract (four parts), and sandalwood extract (one part), claiming: “Thus in these three medicinal agents we have a union of the best that the materia medica affords for the purpose of overcoming vesical, urethral and prostatic irritability and restoring the normal tone of the genito-urinary tract.”73
Saw Palmetto Patent Medicines Spark Ire of the AMA
In the early 20th century, the American Medical Association (AMA) instituted a public campaign against “nostrums and quackery” and published “The Propaganda for Medical Reform” in a long-running column in the AMA’s weekly periodical Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Saw palmetto products were among the targets of the AMA’s efforts. Patent medicine manufacturers, such as the OD Chemical Company (New York) and Od Peacock Sultan Co. (St. Louis, Missouri), sold branded products such as “Sanmetto,” which also combined sandalwood oil and corn silk with saw palmetto. Their advertising language was typical for saw palmetto products of the day: “For genito-urinary diseases. A scientific blending of true santal and saw palmetto in a pleasant aromatic vehicle. A vitalizing tonic to the reproductive system. Specifically, valuable in prostatic troubles of old men — irritable bladder — cystitis — urethritis-pre-senility.”74
In the 1921 second volume of Nostrums and Quackery, a compilation of articles reprinted from JAMA, compiler and editor Arthur J. Cramp, MD, decried third-party literature claims of “the Sanmetto treatment” as a dubious patent medicine for gonorrhea. He also scoffed at the Sanmetto maker’s ad claims that the product acted “as a great vitalizer, increasing the strength of the reproductive organs, hastening their action, promoting their secreting power and increasing their size.” Cramp served as director of the Propaganda Department (later renamed the Bureau of Investigation) of the AMA.75
Another AMA target was “Vernal Saw Palmetto Berry Wine,” which was offered by the Vernal Remedy Company (LeRoy, New York) and was later called “Vernal Palmettona.” An analysis by state chemists in North Dakota found that the preparation contained an alcoholic solution, emodin-containing laxative drugs (e.g., aloe emodin derived from Aloe spp., [Asphodelaceae]), salicylic acid, and glycerin.75 Other commonly advertised saw palmetto patent medicine products were “Drake’s Palmetto Berry Wine” and “Drake’s Palmetto Compound” (“for weak stomachs, sluggish livers, [and] disordered kidneys”).
The most famous saw palmetto-containing “quack” product was “Sargol,” first advertised in 1908, with ads placed widely in newspapers and magazines. The Sargol Company was started by Wylie B. Jones and Oliver C. Kingsley in Binghamton, New York. Sargol was a private label product manufactured by Parke, Davis & Co. on behalf of the Sargol Company. The primary ingredient was an extract of saw palmetto berry. The formula was produced at a price of 53 to 78 cents per thousand tablets and sold at $25 per thousand tablets. It was advertised as a weight and flesh-building product. “Be plump and well developed — Use Sargol the flesh builder,” said one ad. “Summer days are flesh-building days,” said another. In periodicals targeted to men, Sargol was promoted as a “flesh builder” for those of puny stature. In women’s magazines, it was promoted as a “bust developer” and “a marvel in quickly and permanently rounding out the feminine form, filling out the face to a perfect oval, making the neck and bust firm and plump and rounding out the arms and legs to graceful proportions.”75-77
Jones and Kingsley were charged with using the mail to defraud. After a 13-week trial, which began in late 1916 and included more than 25,000 articles of evidence and cost the US government more than $100,000 (equivalent to about $2.4 million in 2021 dollars), the owners of the company were found guilty of fraud and fined $30,000 (equivalent to about $730,000 in 2021) by Judge George W. Wray of the US District Court in Auburn, New York. As part of the sentence, Jones and Kingsley waived their right to appeal and agreed to go out of business. It is estimated, however, that they made as much as $3 million (equivalent to about $73 million in 2021) in a nine-year period. Variations of the formula continued to be sold in Australia, France, and Great Britain after the judgment.75-77
Saw Palmetto in the USP
Sabal, “the partially dried ripe fruit of Serenoa serrulata,” was admitted to the eighth decennial revision of the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) in 1905.78 Both saw palmetto berries (with an expanded description and specifications of the crude drug) and the Fluidextract of Sabal (Fluidextractum Sabal) were included in the ninth decennial USP revision in 1916.79 Saw palmetto berries and related products were among a long list of crude plant drugs that were “articles official in the USP IX but not admitted to the USP X.”80 It was instead placed in the National Formulary (1926–1950).78-80 Saw palmetto extract and the dried powdered berries were again admitted to USP24-NF19 in 2000 as dietary ingredient monographs.6 The current revision of USP-NF 2021 includes dietary ingredient monographs for Saw Palmetto, Powdered Saw Palmetto, Saw Palmetto Extract, and Saw Palmetto Capsules. The USP monograph defines Saw Palmetto to consist of partially dried, ripe fruit of Serenoa repens (W. Bartram) Small (Arecaceae) [syn. Serenoa serrulatum Schult.; Sabal serrulata (Michx.) Nutt. ex Schult. & Schult. f.], containing not less than (NLT) 2% (v/w) of volatile oil, NLT 7% of lipophilic extract, and NLT 9% of total fatty acids, determined on the dried basis (Nandu Sarma [USP director of dietary supplements and herbal medicines] email to T. Smith, June 6, 2021).
Saw palmetto and its products, along with other botanicals in the USP, became a wedge issue used by the AMA to express disdain with the USP revision process, which the AMA believed should be in the control of physicians rather than pharmacists. From 1900 to 1910 all USP revision committee members were pharmacists. By 1909, a report issued by an ad hoc “Committee on the Revision of the Pharmacopeia of the American Medical Association” (not to be confused with the USP’s official revision convention) lobbied to have saw palmetto berries and its fluidextract removed from the USP (along with more than 40 additional botanicals). AMA revision committee member M. I. Wilbert of Washington, DC, summed up the physicians’ position: “From a pharmaceutical point of view the report is a very pleasing one. There can be no doubt that members of the medical profession should absolutely dictate the contents of the Pharmacopeia. That is their province, it is their duty.”81 By 1926, with the publication of USP X,80 physicians finally succeeded in removing saw palmetto and many other botanicals from the USP. The friction between physicians and pharmacists over who should control which drugs should be included in the USP lasted for decades.82
Saw palmetto was used as an example to illustrate regional differences in prescribing habits, the committee report noted:
With regards to dismissals, with such drugs as saw palmetto, for example, there is much adverse criticism. Hallberg collected one million prescriptions in order to show what drugs were most used in the country. He found that saw palmetto, while only prescribed three times in a thousand prescriptions in Philadelphia, was prescribed over thirty times in Chicago, and so it is with all those drugs, if we but investigate.81
Dried Fruit versus Partially Dried Fruit
Today, most of the supply of saw palmetto raw material consists of dried berries, rather than “the partially dried ripe fruit” first specified in the USP. Much of the current chemical literature also involves analysis of the dried fruits and/or finished products extracted from the dried fruits, largely mirroring specifications of European phytomedicine products.
Products developed in the 1880s and 1890s, along with early chemistry papers, often involved the fresh fruits. For example, Parke, Davis & Co. offered four products made from the fresh berries and two products made with the oleoresin of berries.66 An analysis by Culbreth (1917) found that the partially dried ripe fruit contains 0.5-1% volatile oil and 12-15% fixed oil. The fixed oil contained two separations of the oil: one of a light lemon color, the other of a greenish brown color. The volatile oil, Culbreth wrote, is “not supposed to exist in the dried fruit; some claim it to be present in the recent fruit, others that it is formed by the slow action of the fatty acids on the alcohol in which the fruit is kept. It has a green color and an old ‘cheese odor.’”83
In the early 20th century, partially dried fruits were the primary saw palmetto raw material in trade. Approximately 54 lbs (24.5 kg) of fresh fruit was dried to 30-40 lbs (13.6-18.1 kg), then shipped in barrels to which alcohol was added to preserve the berries in shipment or storage.83 Heber W. Youngken, in the third edition of his Textbook of Pharmacognosy (1930), wrote that before the fruits are shipped, they are placed in gunnysacks after the fruit is dried to the consistency of a prune, either in the sun or by artificial heat. Foreign shipments, he noted, were shipped in barrels with chloroform or carbon tetrachloride added to thwart insect attacks.84 In the sixth edition of his textbook (1948), Youngken wrote: “Saw Palmetto berries are shipped either in the fresh ripe states, in the semi-moist state or in the dried condition.”85
Descriptions of the late 19th-century saw palmetto trade, repeated by Youngken, Culbreth, and others, originally appeared in an 1895 paper by Henry H. Rusby, W. H. Bastedo, and Virgil Coblentz. Rusby wrote the botanical section and copied, in its entirety, a manuscript received from E. W. Amsden, a farmer from Ormond, Florida. According to Rusby, “Mr. Amsden’s description of the appearance and habits of the plant is the best that I have seen and I copy it entire from the manuscript with which he has furnished me.”86 Perhaps reflecting a changing climate, Rusby wrote: “Collection of the fruit is often begun before maturity in August and it extends into January, or even in rare favorable seasons into March.”86,87
Today, the fruit harvest occurs from mid-August (for unripe green fruit) to mid-October. It takes as little as two weeks between the time the berries’ first flush of orange appears and the time they reach full ripeness and drop off the plant. The timing of fruit maturity or ripeness varies by as much as a month depending on latitude. Unripe, immature green fruits harvested early in the season are of inferior quality, and harvesters get a lower price. These berries contain less oil (fatty acids and free fatty acids) and may end up as dried milled biomass, resulting in a finished product of inferior quality. Typically, low-quality raw material made from unripe green berries is powdered and unsuitable for extracts.
Early Controversies in Understanding Chemical Composition
In his first published description of saw palmetto berry oil, J. B. Read noted:
The oil, or rather oils — for there are two — a volatile oil, soluble in alcohol, and a fixed oil, are obtained from the expressed juice by allowing it to stand for some time. In a few days the oils rise to the surface, and the liquid is resolved into three layers; first, a yellow volatile oil, next a thicker, grayish-brown fixed oil, and then a yellowish watery fluid containing a large percentage of saccharine matter, richer in fact than cane juice itself. By evaporation this fluid yields a rich golden syrup, which neither ferments nor candies, slightly retaining the peculiar taste of the fruit. When the berries are boiled in water, the volatile oil is dissipated, filling the atmosphere for a great distance with its pungent vapor, and producing dizziness and headache in those in the immediate neighborhood.42
According to Hale,41 in a letter that John Uri Lloyd wrote to him:
The principal constituent is a volatile oil. This oil possesses a deep green color; its odor is characteristic of the berries and reminds one of Oenanthic ether.… The green color of the oil is not due to chlorophyll, neither is it due to copper which might come from a worm used in condensing it. The soap produced from the saponified oil is green; alcohol abstracts nothing from this soap and the fatty acid liberated from the soap is also green and soluble in ether, with a green color.88
Lloyd went on to opine that no single component or fraction was responsible for the activity of saw palmetto. Instead, he thought, the totality of constituents is responsible for the therapeutic value. This theory, which evolved out of Eclectic pharmacy practices developed by Lloyd, became the basis of modern, chemically well-defined phytomedicines. Lloyd wrote:
There are no other marked constituents in the berries aside from those common to fruits…. This oil is a peculiar principle and dominates the drug. It is an ethereal oil. While I assert that the volatile oil is the conspicuous constituent of the fruit of the Saw Palmetto, I do not mean that it can replace the natural drug. The fact is, in many cases our chemistry is not able to determine the therapeutical value of passive bodies. The apparently inconspicuous substances seem in natural combinations to possess decided powers as blenders or modifiers. I call this to your attention in order that you may not fall into the error of so many men who infer that the conspicuous product of a drug naturally possesses the therapeutical value of the drug. In making tincture of Saw Palmetto berries I use the entire fruit, pulp and seed. I use official deodorized alcohol full strength, making one pint of the tincture represent sixteen ounces of the drug. I do not filter the preparation at all, but let it clarify by settling and decantation.88
- Marion Dixon, a manufacturing pharmacist from Titusville, Florida, inferred that the fruits require careful handling. In the Proceedings of the Florida State Pharmacy Association (1894), Dixon wrote:
For the fluid extract I have the fruit gathered when it is ripe and at its best condition and delivered to me as soon as possible, then I reassort them as carefully as a woman would fruit for making preserves, then I at once have them ground very fine then macerate with alcohol 95 per cent, then proceed as usual to making fluid extracts (only using the cold process), as the least amount of heat will drive off and destroy the main medical properties which is the ethereal and volatile oils.89
In 1906, John M. Francis, chief chemist for Parke, Davis & Co., noted that while the partially dried ripe fruit is specified in the saw palmetto fruit monograph admitted to the 8th revision of the USP, the dried fruit is what was usually seen in commerce. He suggested that manufacturers should focus on using the ripe fresh fruit. He conjectured that the medicinal value, distinctive flavor, and fragrance of the fresh fruits are wholly due to the volatile oil, rather than the fixed oils in the dried fruit. Parke, Davis & Co.’s year-long investigation of saw palmetto fruit chemistry (conducted at the lab of Professor Paul C. Freer and colleagues at the University of Michigan) suggested that the green fruit was devoid of volatile oil, the half-ripe fruit contained more, but the fully ripe fruit had the maximum content of volatile oil. He claimed that after this stage, the volatile substances are rapidly lost and wholly disappear upon drying. Francis concluded that the best saw palmetto preparation should not be made from the dried fruit, but from ripe fruit immediately preserved in alcohol until required for use in manufacture of preparations. He wrote: “The fluidextract or elixir made from the cured fruit is not to be compared with that made from the preserved ripe fruit, in physical characteristics, and there is every reason to suppose that there will also be a great difference in therapeutic activity.”90
In stark contrast to Francis’ observations, in 1915 Charles A. Mann, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin, conducted the most extensive chemical study to that date and came to a different conclusion regarding the volatile oils. He found that the “so-called volatile oil” was actually a mixture of ethyl esters of fatty acids contained in alcoholic galenicals of the fruits, not a volatile oil “in the generally accepted sense of the term.” Rather, the “oil” was formed by condensation of free fatty acids in alcoholic extracts. Only traces of a volatile oil were obtained from the fresh berries.91
Until that point, Mann wrote, “Whatever we know about [saw palmetto] chemistry has been studied in connection with the manufacture of pharmaceutical preparations,” a statement that still largely holds true.92
Increased Demand and Trade by 1895 Leads to Supply Constraints
By 1895, saw palmetto products were well-established in the drug trade, and annual shipments of the dried berries to New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore totaled an estimated 150 tons. In an 1895 publication, Rusby, quoting Amsden, described a vast vegetative belt of saw palmetto on Florida’s east coast, but cautioned that only about 1% of the plants produced fruit. According to the paper:
It is estimated the annual shipments to New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore reach 150 tons, the largest amount from any one place, namely 30 tons, being shipped from Ormond. The finest fruit is said to be taken, and the best prices paid, by New York customers, Philadelphia standing next, while the driest and cheapest fruit is shipped to Baltimore.86
In a letter to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, dated February 4, 1899, Charles Sprague Sargent (1841–1927), the first director of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, sent a sample of the dried berries for Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, noting that by 1899, about 250 tons of the berries were being used to make extracts in the United States.93
When saw palmetto berries were harvested in the 1890s, the usual procedure was to clip the entire fruit stem, shaking the fruits into a basket. The pendulous panicle of fruits, up to 24 inches (61 cm) long, may weigh 6-8 lbs (2.7-3.6 kg). A bushel of the fruits weighs about 54 lbs (24.5 kg) fresh and 30-42 lbs (13.6-19.1 kg) dried, depending on moisture content.87
By 1903, a pattern of supply shortages was reported in the pharmacy business periodical The Pharmaceutical Era. “A scarcity of palmetto berries is said to exist in the producing districts, and the stocks in the hands of jobbers [wholesalers] are also alleged to be small, so that prices are likely to keep up or go higher,” the publication noted.94 This report portends a pattern that continues today in natural fluctuations of saw palmetto fruit set, which affect supply volume and price.
In 1972, Dent Smith, founder of the International Palm Society, observed that saw palmetto populations near Daytona Beach, Florida, had good fruiting in only five of 20 years. The boom-and-bust fruiting cycle in which saw palmetto plants fruit heavily every two to four years (depending on location) may be due to the depletion of plant carbohydrate reserves, since plants may expend energy reserves when developing fruit and then need time to rebuild those reserves.95
Little trade information is available for saw palmetto from the 1930s to the 1970s, after the decline of the US herbal market and herbal medicine in general for at least four decades. Saw palmetto product use continued in homeopathic practice from the 1930s to the 1960s in Europe, particularly in France, Germany, and Italy. According to a 2012 doctoral thesis by Andy Suter, PhD, currently CEO of the Swiss herbal company A. Vogel, saw palmetto was an obscure medicinal plant in the German literature until a chapter on the plant appeared in the 1944 edition of Hagers Handbuch der Pharmazeutischen Praxis (Springer), a standard German-language work on medicinal plants. In the 1960s, in Europe, saw palmetto-based phytomedicine products emerged as standard treatments for BPH. These products were largely prescribed by physicians and dispensed by pharmacists. According to Suter, there is little archival information from marketing ephemera at that time to document saw palmetto product introduction to the European market.96
Market and Demand Growth in the 1980s and 1990s
In the 1980s and 1990s, scientific papers and reports of positive clinical experiences filtered from European scientific journals to the United States, sparking a slow transition of saw palmetto products from the niche market of health and natural food stores into mainstream retail markets (which includes drugstores, grocery stores, etc.). After the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), mass-market consumer demand for saw palmetto products grew significantly. At the same time, saw palmetto products also experienced a renaissance in Europe.
In the 1990s, global demand for saw palmetto raw material increased by an estimated 7% per year. The price for the freshly harvested fruits increased to more than $6/kg ($2.72/lb) in 1995, with annual sales of approximately $5 million in dried berries. In the 1995 season, given increased demand and a short fruit set, the price of the raw material increased by as much as 30-fold. Fresh berries started that season at around $0.10/lb, quickly moving to around $1/lb as demand increased, and reaching a peak of around $3/lb.36,97
The saw palmetto success story attracted national attention. In 1995, Tom Wells of the Associated Press reported:
Even though the plant grows in abundance from here [Immokalee, Florida] to south Georgia, there haven’t been enough berries to meet demand…. 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.
The increase in demand and dramatic increase in price caught the attention of landowners and Florida legislators. Before the early 1990s, the saw palmetto industry operated under the radar with migrant farm workers harvesting berries for a few cents per pound, mostly on large tracts of land where few people ventured, including the owners. When the price jumped to the $3/lb range in 1995, landowners saw an opportunity for income from otherwise unproductive land and wanted a cut of the revenue stream. In 1995, the state deemed saw palmetto berries an “Agricultural Crop” that require landowner permission for harvest. Yet, no enforcement mechanism was established at the time. Yields of up to a half-ton per acre were predicted. Based on surveys from 1987-1995, it was estimated that market demand had increased from 5-10% per year.98
From the mid-1990s forward, major saw palmetto processors (driers and extractors) developed relationships with large landholders and organized picking crews under the direction of a contracted crew boss. Instead of trying to eradicate saw palmetto, large landowners shifted attention to organizing harvesters and profiting off the berries as a supplemental source of income on land slated for future development or already used as livestock rangeland.
Research Funding for Saw Palmetto Biology, Population Dynamics, and Fruit Yield
Economic and scientific interest in saw palmetto in the mid-1990s led the State of Florida to fund basic research on the plant and commercial berry supplies. This research was in cooperation with Dr. Willmar Schwabe GmbH & Co. (Karlsruhe, Germany), Indena SpA (Milan, Italy), Pierre Fabre Sante (Toulouse, France), Plantation Botanicals, Inc. (Felda, Florida), and Wilcox Natural Products (Boone, North Carolina).
From 1995 to 1997, the State of Florida funded a three-year study on the production and management of saw palmetto. Researchers from UF’s IFAS, including range scientist Jeff Mullahey, PhD, and research associate and then-PhD candidate Mary Carrington, conducted the study. The work was based at UF’s Southwest Florida Research and Education Center (SWFREC) near Immokalee. Carrington wrote: “Many farmers in Florida already have lots of saw palmetto on their land and our research will help them learn what potential they have for a supplemental crop. … Ultimately, we’re interested in increasing the fruiting and extracts, so we’ll look at how shade, burning, and fertilizer affect the fruit.”98
As part of that effort, on August 15, 1997, UF’s SWFREC held its first “Saw Palmetto Field Day.” The event included presentations on saw palmetto biology research, economics, landscaping industry uses, and medicinal uses. Dr. Wilhelm Schmid, a medicinal agronomist at Schwabe, presented a paper on the “Importance of Saw Palmetto in Europe.” According to Schmid, Schwabe’s demand for saw palmetto raw material increased by nearly 10-fold in a seven-year period from 1990 to 1996. In 1990, the company used 26 metric tons (mt) (28.7 tons) of raw material to produce 1.6 mt (1.8 tons) of extract. In 1996, their dried saw palmetto berry demand increased to 257 mt (283 tons), which was used to produce 24.5 mt (27 tons) of extract. An increase of about 30% efficiency in extract production optimized use of the raw material.99
The next year, the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) organized the 1998 International Saw Palmetto Symposium, which was held August 20–22, 1998, in Naples, Florida. This symposium brought together various academic and industry experts in clinical practice and clinical research, pharmacology, chemistry, agricultural economics, and other disciplines to further knowledge of saw palmetto harvest and uses.
Reproductive Biology, Population Dynamics, and Fruit Yield
Various studies published as a result of the SWFREC research in the late 1990s provided insights into the plant’s reproductive biology, population dynamics, and fruit yields. One study assessed the plant’s growth rate, time to flower development, fruit set, and potential yield projections. Saw palmetto is a slow-growing plant, with annual stem elongation of 0.6-2.2 cm (0.24-0.87 in) in central Florida. Flowers typically do not develop until a plant is at least 60 cm (23.6 in) in height, which in the wild may take up to a decade. Flowering is reported to increase with plant height. Two or three flowering branches (inflorescences) may be produced in a year of heavy flowering. Only a few flowers produce fruits, and a single inflorescence may produce 0.4-0.5 kg (0.9-1.1 lbs) of fruit on average, though others may produce up to 12 kg (26.5 lbs) of fresh fruit. Fruit yields from wild areas range from 100 kg/ha (89.2 lbs/acre) to more than 1,500 kg/ha (1,338 lbs/acre). A typical yield is about 200 kg/ha (178 lbs/acre). Year-to-year fluctuations in harvest volume due to favorable biological conditions for higher fruit yields, or increased production due to higher prices, may increase production amounts by 200-300%.100
Flowering and the mechanisms that trigger flowering are major factors that determine berry production. According to evolutionary biologist Warren G. Abrahamson, PhD, saw palmetto flowering and how much it flowers are a response to plant mass (stored resources) and leaf loss which trigger flowering. Plants under more open canopies produce more flowers. Saw palmetto ecosystems historically experienced wet-season summer fires, but today, these ecosystems are more likely to experience droughty, dry-season, human-set fires, which lead to increased vegetative growth and reduced fruit set. The absence of fire (due to fire suppression) and changed seasonal fire patterns are at variance with saw palmetto’s biological evolutionary history. Anthropogenic influences including an increasingly fragmented landscape and climate change-related alterations in temperature and precipitation, along with soil hydrology changes resulting from drainage or water use, are long-term, persistent threats to saw palmetto.101
Fruit Drop Linked to Fungal Pathogen
Fruit drop can be caused by various factors, including fungal pathogens and heavy rains that can physically knock off the berries, affecting saw palmetto crop volume and price. A 2001 publication by Carrington et al provided the first scientific confirmation of a fungal plant pathogen that causes premature fruit drop in saw palmetto. In 1997, premature fruit drop that decimated the saw palmetto crop that year was linked to black, pitted lesions on some flowers and fruits. The culprit was Colletotrichum gloeosporioides, which causes what is known as an anthracnose infection and is one of the most widespread postharvest diseases in many tropical fruits. In fruits such as mango (Mangifera indica, Anacardiaceae), papaya (Carica papaya, Caricaceae), and avocado (Persea americana, Lauraceae), the infection occurs while fruit is ripening, then causes significant loss and decay in postharvest storage and distribution. In saw palmetto, anthracnose infection causes premature fruit-drop from the live plant.102
Whether fruit drop is caused by physical knock-off from heavy rains or from fungal infections, increasingly heavy precipitation in Florida affects the volume of the saw palmetto crop hence the price.
Changing Social and Economic Dynamics
The saw palmetto berry industry continued to grow through the 2000s and 2010s. Fluctuations in harvest volume may reflect fluctuations in fruit set. According to AHPA, 2,648,000 lbs (1,201,113 kg) of dried berries were harvested in 2008. The wild saw palmetto berry harvest was reported to be 1,581,106 lbs (717,178 kg) for 2009 and 1,461,125 lbs (662,775 kg) for 2010.103 In September 2018, AHPA issued an alert that the extensive rain in 2018 had interrupted the flowering period and fruit set, leading to very low densities of berries and smaller harvest yields over large areas. This led to a threefold increase in berry prices paid to pickers in the 2018 season compared with 2017. As of 2021, AHPA is in the process of collecting harvest data on wild saw palmetto crop harvest for more recent years.104
In every year reported in the AHPA tonnage surveys, less than two tons of “cultivated” saw palmetto berries reportedly were produced. Industry sources suggest no appreciable cultivation of saw palmetto for berry production and that supplies reported as cultivated may, in fact, represent managed wild populations on farmland.
According to BAPP’s 2018 saw palmetto bulletin, which cites data from HerbalGram’s annual Herb Market Reports, US sales of saw palmetto herbal dietary supplements in mainstream retail outlets ranged between $16.8 million and $21.6 million per year from 2013 to 2017, while in the natural food retail channel, sales ranged between $6.4 million and $7.9 million during that time. Since these sales exclude Walmart in the mainstream channel and Whole Foods Market in the natural channel, these estimates must be considered low.8
From communications with various commercial entities, BAPP reports an estimated 4,500-8,000 mt (4,960-8,819 tons) of fresh berries are harvested each year depending on fruit set and weather conditions, leading to the production of 520 mt (573 tons) of extract with a wholesale value of $105 million.8 A recent analysis by AHPA, based on new data collection methods instituted in 2014, reported an estimated annual dry weight tonnage for 2017 (the most recent year for which data are available) of 6,336 tons (12,672,000 lbs or 5,747.9 mt). Fresh weight harvest for 2017 was estimated at 21,542.4 tons (43,084,800 lbs or 19,885 mt). This makes saw palmetto North America’s largest wild-harvested herbal dietary supplement and phytomedicine ingredient in terms of harvest weight.105
Who Picks Saw Palmetto Berries?
Berry picking traditionally is conducted by marginalized farmworkers and contract pickers. The largest community of farmworkers is around Immokalee, which is home to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), which is known for programs such as its Campaign for Fair Food and its Anti-Slavery Program, as well as advocacy for Hispanic, Maya, and Haitian immigrants who work citrus groves and the tomato (Solanum lycopersicum, Solanaceae) industry in Florida. The tomato harvest ends in June, and the harvest of bolitos (the local Spanish name for saw palmetto) begins in August. The harvest can be contentious because some Florida residents have negative attitudes toward immigrants and migrant farm workers and because of the perception that harvesting berries for the herb trade deprives wildlife of food.97
Various county governments in Florida restrict or prohibit saw palmetto berry harvesting on public lands which they control. The Florida Forest Service previously issued special permits for harvest saw palmetto berries (as many as a picker could harvest) on state lands for $10 per day, but stopped issuing permits in 2015, partly as a response to conservation and animal advocacy groups’ longstanding efforts to discontinue the harvest of berries on state lands.
The advent of social media has created new supply chain dynamics. On platforms such as Facebook, buyers now advertise prices paid to pickers and locations for purchase of fresh saw palmetto berries. Traditionally, fresh berry harvesting from the field has been a cash-only business. In September 2018, one buyer reportedly was robbed of $15,000 in cash in St. Lucie County, Florida. In a separate incident two days later, another saw palmetto berry buyer was shot and killed for his cash. Some wholesale buyers are instituting electronic payment transfer systems given the widespread availability of instant cash transfer options on mobile devices.106
Permits Now Required to Harvest, Possess, and Transport Saw Palmetto Berries
Just days before the beginning of the 2018 saw palmetto berry harvest season, the Endangered Plant Advisory Council of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services voted unanimously to add saw palmetto to Florida’s “commercially exploited plant list.” As a result, beginning on July 17, 2018, landowners who harvest saw palmetto berries must have a “Native Plant Harvesting Permit,” which is available for free, submitted 14 days before harvesting begins. Contracted harvesters (crew leaders) on public or private land must also have a Native Plant Harvesting Permit and be in possession of written permission from the landowner or the landowner’s legal representative 14 days before harvesting begins. Harvesting from one’s own property also requires a Native Plant Harvesting Permit when transporting saw palmetto berries for sale, selling the berries, or offering the berries for sale. Being in possession of or transporting saw palmetto berries for sale without the permit can result in being charged with a misdemeanor, and the berries may be returned to the landowner or destroyed.107
Lessons learned in the 2018 season led to some changes in the permitting procedure for 2019. The name and phone number of the property owner must now be submitted on the application for a permit. Every property on which berries are harvested must have a separate and complete Permission Letter for Harvesting. Crew leaders must have a permit, but individual day workers who collect berries for the crew leader do not need a permit, and the names of the workers are not required on the permit. It can take up to 14 days for administrative processing and issuance of the permit, and one cannot harvest berries until he or she is in possession of the permit. A new permit application must be submitted each year.107
Following Florida’s lead, in 2020, Georgia also instituted a permit system for saw palmetto berry harvesting. In order to help law enforcement distinguish between good actors and bad actors, Georgia instituted an act to enforce supply chain controls on saw palmetto harvest in South Georgia by developing Georgia developed a “Certificate of Harvest” system in which those who sell to saw palmetto berry dealers must have a signed certificate from the owner of the land on which the berries were harvested.108
Ongoing industry efforts, including those led by AHPA and major buyers, are underway to educate berry pickers on how to obtain clean, high-quality berries, picked at the optimal time. For pickers who are trained to harvest at the correct time, larger and heavier berries produce a better financial return.109
Saw palmetto is one of the most important North American medicinal plants. This palm family member grows in a limited range in the southeastern United States, and its fruits are wild-harvested commercially in Florida and, to a lesser extent, Georgia. The ongoing impacts of climate change, including rising temperatures and increased precipitation in Florida, along with sea level rise along the coast, will restrict access to the fruits over the long term. Fluctuations in fruit availability due to natural variability in fruit set, habitat loss, difficulties in developing commercial cultivation, and various human activities also threaten saw palmetto’s future.
Interest in saw palmetto products increased in the early 1990s, as more scientific evidence of their safety and efficacy was published, particularly in Germany, where federal regulations at the time required a high level of scientific evidence for phytomedicinal products, which already had been on the market for decades. Since 2000, consumer interest in saw palmetto products has continued to grow in the United States, and saw palmetto was the 13th top-selling herbal dietary supplement ingredient in natural retail outlets in 2020.110
The loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of saw palmetto habitat to livestock rangeland and commercial development, combined with dramatic increases in demand for saw palmetto berries over the last 30 years and the potential loss of suitable environmental conditions due to shifting climatic patterns, bring into question the future of this herb. Where will saw palmetto berries come from in the future, and is the supply sustainable?
Steven Foster is an author, photographer, and herbalist, and he serves on the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council. He began his herbal career in 1974 at the Herb Department of the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community.
* This article is dedicated to the memory of Marlin Huffman (1938–2002) of Plantation Botanicals (Felda, Florida). See: In Memoriam. HerbalGram. 2003;57:67-68.
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