This story brought to you for free by:

Not berry nice: Saw palmettos attract pickers to private property

Valuable berries — Otherwise easily ignored, saw palmetto plants in the Southeastern states, including Florida, beguile harvesters from August through October. During those months, the plants produce fruit, shown here, which is sold to brokers or directly to processors who dry the fruit and turn it to powder for distribution in the health-product industry.

Valuable berries — Otherwise easily ignored, saw palmetto plants in the Southeastern states, including Florida, beguile harvesters from August through October. During those months, the plants produce fruit, shown here, which is sold to brokers or directly to processors who dry the fruit and turn it to powder for distribution in the health-product industry.

PHOTO BY JAMES H. MILLER & TED BODNER, SOUTHERN WEED SCIENCE SOCIETY, BUGWOOD.ORG

A seasonal invasion has some West Volusia residents on edge.

Blue Lake Hills residents Cindy and Rajeev Bakrania felt less-than-hospitable when some brush rustling along War Admiral Drive in DeLand began late last month.

The end of summer brings a bankable bounty from an otherwise unexceptional endemic plant, the Serenoa repens, or saw palmetto. Health claims made for the palmetto’s golden berries cover everything from prostate trouble to hair loss.    

September and October bring unmarked vehicles carrying pickers and buckets to rural roads where the palmetto’s barbed fans herald the loot.

It’s hard, hot, dangerous work. Diamondback rattlesnakes pass their days coiled in palmetto thickets.

It’s also, often, illegal. State law prohibits picking, possessing or removing saw-palmetto berries in Florida’s public wildlife-management areas. And, homeowners are often unsympathetic to laborers trespassing on private property.

On Sept. 28, an old, blue pickup and other vehicles arrived in Blue Lake Hills on DeLand’s east side, resident Cindy Bakrania told The Beacon. The people inside the vehicles did not speak English, she said, but indicated that another neighbor had given them permission to pick berries in the area.

The next day, two men and a woman visited the Bakranias’ home, requesting permission to take berries from the prolific palmettos on their 2 acres.  

Rajeev Bakrania told them no. He explained the berries are consumed by wildlife, and he asked the individuals to leave.

Indeed, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 80 percent of a Florida black bear’s natural diet consists of grasses, leaves and the woody part of plants, including the fruit of the saw palmetto.

The berries also feed deer, raccoons, opossums, wild hogs, field mice and other wild animals.

Despite Rajeev Bakrania’s denial, the group drove to the couple’s driveway opening and began to cut palmetto fronds along the eastern edge of the property, Cindy Bakrania said.

She told them to leave.  

Subsequently, Cindy Bakrania saw them in two other driveways in the neighborhood, she said. And, they returned Sept. 30.

Cindy Bakrania called law enforcement but was told, she said, that without an officer present to witness the trespass, no complaint could be filed.

Bakrania views her land as a small sanctuary — growing ever smaller as massive development strips bare the surrounding wildlife habitat.

She is particularly distressed by further lessening of the remaining animals’ food supply.

And, she considers it burglary.

“They’re not just walking across my yard,” Bakrania said. “They are taking something physical that’s worth money. It wouldn’t be any different if they were taking any other plants or a bike.”

Beginning in August, primarily throughout Florida and Georgia, pickers clamor to gather as many pounds as they can. From year to year, the rates paid per pound vary. One picker told The Beacon berries fetched 50 cents to 60 cents a pound in August, but are worth $2 or more a pound near the season’s end in October.

Dennis Mudge, director of the University of Florida’s IFAS local extension office in DeLand, agreed the theories abound as to health cures from saw-palmetto berries.

“The only one I’ve seen anything to really subscribe to is what it’ll do for men [improving prostate health],” Mudge said. “There’s no real research showing it does all that other stuff.”

Berry picking has largely become berry poaching, Mudge said. 

“A lot of the pickers are from other countries, don’t speak English, and don’t understand they’re on private land,” he said. 

Also during the last week of September, an older model Ford Ranger pickup inched along Vista Park Drive in northeast DeLand. The dirt road borders the Clark Bay Conservation Area.

Two individuals got out of the truck and began picking berries in yards before asking permission, one resident said.

Some property owners told them to leave.

Liz Panariello gave them 30 minutes and a warning.

“I told them they could pick as many as they could get from one area in 30 minutes, and I was going to watch, with my gun,” she said. “I told them I didn’t want them all over my property.”

Panariello said one of the people told her the berries were destined for a cancer-research lab, and that he and his co-workers are paid by a Daytona Beach-based company.

“But he was respectful, and at least he asked,” she said. “But I watched them the whole time.”

Her neighbor, who asked not to be identified, denied the pickers’ request and said he later saw the truck parked at the entrance to Clark Bay, where picking is illegal.

“It’s against the law to harvest these on state lands,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Greg Workman said. “We make many arrests throughout the state this time of the year for harvesting them on our wildlife management areas.”

The days of farmers and ranchers paying pickers to harvest the saw palmetto crop to sell to processors are all but over, according to Mudge.

“There were too many injured,” he said.

An article posted to the University of Florida’s School of Forest Resources & Conservation website bears him out.

“Some fences were cut, cattle got loose, cars hit cattle, ranchers were held liable for damage to cars ... . Also, unfortunately, four berry-pickers died of rattlesnake bites and another drowned trying to cross a canal,” the article states.

Technically the golden produce, which is dried to be turned into powder for distribution, is fruit, not berries, according to Dana Venrick, a retired commercial horticulture agent.

“Most are bought in Immokalee in South Florida,” said Venrick, who currently is co-owner of Quality Green Specialists in DeLand. “It’s an industrial town.”

- Erika Webb, erika@beacononlinenews.com

Rate this article: 
Average: 5 (6 votes)