Florida's next cash crop could come straight out of the wilds of south Florida, where the common saw palmetto grows. Researchers at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences said the plant's berries some day could even rank among the state's top agricultural commodities.
Sounds bizarre, perhaps, for a bush that ranchers and developers have been cursing for years. But Europeans are buying the berries by the ton for an herbal prostate remedy, and the U.S. market is poised for expansion.
Those interested in the saw palmetto market have a keen eye on a study just started by range scientist Jeff Mullahey and research associate Mary Carrington, based at the IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee.
``The study will increase our knowledge concerning the production and management of the saw palmetto,'' Mullahey said.
Saw palmetto research is unique in that the only previous study dates back to the 1960s. During UF's three-year study, the researchers will examine factors that affect growth and fruiting of the saw palmetto. The saw palmetto is hardy and no natural pests for it have been identified, making it ideal as a low-maintenance crop, Carrington said.
``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,'' Carrington said. ``Ultimately, we're interested in increasing the fruiting and extracts. So, we'll look at how shade, burning and fertilizer affect the fruit.''
The foreign market for palmetto berries already is booming as Europeans gobble up the berry extract as a natural remedy for prostate problems. Herbal medicine experts say the U.S. market is on the brink of a similar boom.
photo by Cindy Spence
Research associate Mary Carrington is beginning a three-year study of the growth and fruiting of saw palmettos.