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The lure of wild berries

In sweltering heat, migrants gather the increasingly popular fruit of wild saw palmetto for its purported medicinal properties.

By JAMES THORNER
Published September 8, 2003

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[Times photos: Lara Cerri]
Workers at Saw Palmetto Berry Co-op of Florida gather wild saw palmetto berries. The extract of the oily, olive-like fruit is touted for its ability to ease prostate swelling.


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Workers unload berries from the dryer. Next, the berries are ground into powder.
Maria Ramon works 13 hours at least six days a week during high season at Saw Palmetto Berries Co-op of Florida.

IMMOKALEE - Magdalena Martinez grabs a berry cluster, rattles the stalk with her gloved hand and listens as a shower of orange and green fruit pings in the bottom of a plastic container.

It's late summer, and Mexican immigrants such as Martinez are making a bundle, both figuratively and literally, harvesting one of South Florida's little-known crops: wild saw palmetto berries.

This oily, olive-like fruit has become a star among food supplements, touted for its ability to ease prostate swelling. It's particularly popular in Europe, but it fills shelves in almost every domestic health food store and pharmacy vitamin section.

A bigger future for the berry may lie in another use. Forget the prostate. We're talking receding hairlines and bald spots. It is now a main ingredient in alleged hair growth remedies you smear on your scalp. Products include Avacor and Nioxin.

Some suggest the same hormonal mechanism that supposedly aids the prostate could help those genetically predisposed to failing follicles. The herb's appeal to male vanity and virility could mean a fat future for folks who harvest and process the stuff.

"The potential demand out there for the U.S. market alone for men over 50 is great. I mean, the demand would be astronomical, just for the prostate side alone," said University of Florida economist Fritz Roka, who has studied the crop from a research center in Immokalee.

A handful of companies such as Saw Palmetto Berries Co-op of Florida Inc. in Immokalee are cashing in.

About 20 miles east of Naples, in the flatlands around Corkscrew Swamp and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, owner Greg Zaino trucks in, sorts, dries, grinds and packs millions of pounds of berries from late July to September.

Green, yellow and orange while fresh, the berries shrivel to a brittle black after kiln drying. Zaino's 22,000-square-foot corrugated steel factory is pungent as if with fermenting grapes.

For the seven years of his company's existence, Zaino has been ideally placed to profit from what had been considered little more than an indestructible nuisance plant.

Its serrated stems and rattlesnake-shading fronds win few admirers among ranchers. Cattle rarely eat it, humans love to delete it.

"You can burn it. It won't die. You can hit it with drought. It won't die. You can flood it. It won't die," Zaino said as he strolls 30 acres of mostly palmetto thicket behind his factory.

Though saw palmetto grows from South Carolina to Mississippi, it fruits bountifully and consistently only in South Florida's hot steamy summers, from about Sarasota to Miami.

Steamy it was in late August as Martinez and a crew of Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants plunged into a thicket near Immokalee.

Thick canvas gloves are key, although one teen wore yellow rubber dish washing gloves that offered scant protection against the gashing potential of the saw-toothed stalks.

Martinez wrapped a white button-down shirt around her head, knotting it under her chin. Zaino wielded a machete, warning about rattlesnakes and black racers that stalk the fields.

For pickers such as Martinez, the berries mean precious income in the slack time between jalapeno, watermelon, tomato and citrus picking seasons.

"I'm glad he buys it. It's a blessing for us," Martinez said of Zaino as she gripped a plastic bucket with one hand and a sack with the other. "He's helping us pay our rent."

Zaino estimates he buys from about 600 pickers. They are mostly freelancers who, around sunrise, will prod mechanically stubborn cars to fields near Fort Myers and Naples. Trespassing on both private and public land is a not-so-infrequent problem.

The crop is fickle. Spring rain can cause fungus rot. Something of the sort seems to have happened this year. Berries that in past years sold for 15 cents a pounds collect up to 45 cents a pound this year. But it's nothing like 1995, as a gold-rush-style fever gripped the community when berry prices shot up to $3 a pound.

In a dusty parking lot a couple blocks from Main Street Immokalee, Zaino plops down at his berry buying station - electronic scale, ledger book, adding machine.

The community of about 20,000 is three-quarters Hispanic, mostly young, male and foreign born. Zaino's sign - Se Compra Bolitas - invites pickers in Spanish to sell him their berries.

A little after noon, a weather-worn Toyota Camry backs up to the station, its muffler hardly muffling. A Haitian immigrant with a sweat-smudged shirt unloads three sacks from the back seat: 292 pounds.

"How much today?" the picker asks through a thick Creole accent.

"Thirty-nine cents, babe," Zaino says.

A minute later Zaino hands the man $113 from a cash drawer. If the Haitian picks seven days a week, he could earn, at least for the fleeting season, a respectable middle-class wage.

Zaino ships most of his crop to Europe. Factories there convert his dried berry powder to a fatty extract that's encapsulated. Some of the finished product is shipped back to the United States. Zaino is building his own factory in Immokalee to make the extract.

In one form or another, saw palmetto berries have been part of the herbal medicine cabinet for centuries. Florida Indians ate the fruit as an aphrodisiac, and Fountain-of-Youth seeking Spaniards naturally shipped them back to Europe for sampling.

Today it's listed as the most popular herb to treat non-cancerous swelling of the prostate gland, called benign prostatic hyperplasia. Prostates become bigger in most men over 50. For some, the enlargement constricts urination. Saw palmetto seems to help.

According to 18 clinical trials reviewed by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the herb improved symptoms in three-quarters of patients, compared with about half of patients on a placebo.

Consumer Reports, the Bible of product reliability, dubbed the evidence for saw palmetto "rather impressive." But the research generally isn't up to Food and Drug Administration standards. A more thorough, four to six year trial led by the National Institutes of Health is under way.

The American Urological Association said it's keeping an open mind until further trials are done. In the meantime, annual sales of saw palmetto pills have surpassed $150-million.

"If people want to take saw palmetto, I tell them, "fine,"' said Dr. Raymond Behar, a New Port Richey urologist with 30 years of practice. "Some people think it helps them."

Major drug companies have been standoffish. They would prefer to synthesize saw palmetto and patent the result, said Roka, the University of Florida economist. Real saw palmetto is too easy to produce.

"Pharmaceutical companies haven't been interested because it's a natural product. Why put a lot of money into validating these medical treatments when you can't capture the gains?" Roka said.

Hair companies haven't been so shy. Combined in formulas that purport to preserve and regrow hair, saw palmetto is an ingredient in products such as Avacor. Avacor, sold through radio ads, costs many times more than plain saw palmetto pills.

Most of the hair entrepreneurs make a leap of logic. The same male hormone, a form of testosterone, contributes to swollen prostates and genetically-programmed hair loss. If the herb improves the prostate, wouldn't it work for the scalp?

While that's not proven, the University of California Berkeley didn't rule out a hair-benefit for saw palmetto in its Wellness Guide to Dietary Supplements published this year.

Most of Zaino's berries have fed the prostate soothing industry. But that's about to change. He's announced a deal with a "major hair care products company" for a topical ointment to hit the market by early 2004.

That's good news for the struggling communities in and around Immokalee not blessed by the commercial boom west along Interstate 75. If there's one thing they have plenty of, it's this long-neglected, saw-stemmed weed.

"These plants have been here forever. Some are over 500 years old. It should be the poster plant for sustainable agriculture," said Jeff Mullahey, a University of Florida professor of range science. "You don't do anything for it. And it produces a crop."

[Last modified September 8, 2003, 01:46:45]


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