A fatal train wreck spilled a secret: illegal palmetto berries

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Rescuers made a peculiar discovery Monday next to the body of a man hit by a freight train, evidence of an illegal poaching trade in South Florida.

Harvesting the berries is a crime in Florida, but poachers work throughout South Florida to meet the demand for one of the nation’s most popular herbal supplements.

The berries grow on state preserve lands near Beeline Highway and Indiantown Road, where a CSX train hit the man about 10:15 p.m. Monday. His identity has not been released, but the Sheriff’s Office said he may have been harvesting berries, though no one is sure.

Rescuers initially searched for other people hit by the train, but none were found. The Sheriff’s Office did not explain why they thought other people might have been present.

The berries are at the center of an international botanical market valued at $116.3 million last year, according to a market report from Industry Research. The berries sell for $1.50 to $3 per pound.

The oil or extract from the berries is used primarily to treat prostate issues, but it’s also said to boost testosterone, despite almost no conclusive clinical evidence that it helps. The National Institutes of Health says any benefit to the prostate is “modest at best.”

The berries generally aren’t worth their weight in the effort it takes to harvest them, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Robert Klepper. A 2018 statute makes its a misdemeanor to harvest palmetto berries without a permit, even in your own yard.

“They’re not super valuable,” Klepper said. “It takes a large amount for them to fetch a significant amount of money.”

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The harvesting also can be dangerous, grueling work. Pickers reach through thin fan-like leaves to the berries clumped around the tree’s thick, winding trunk, where they could encounter snakes or stinging insects.

The wildlife commission cites violators every time the berries are in season, typically August through November, Klepper said. Arrest statistics were not immediately available Tuesday. The law is intended mainly to prevent trespassing and the removal of a resource from public lands, Klepper said.

Conservationists point out that harvesting disrupts the ecosystem and depletes a wildlife food source. Several species eat palmetto berries, most notably the black bear, which relies heavily upon the berries to bulk up before winter. Harvesting berries also can halt propagation and slow the saw palmetto’s population growth.

Saw palmettos grow only in the southern United States, from Texas to South Carolina and as far south as Florida. The berry’s extract is in demand all over the world and is available widely in stores and on Amazon, ranging from about $10 to $20 for a bottle of 150 capsules.

American manufacturers produce the world’s supply of the product and rely completely upon individuals and small teams of workers to harvest the berries. Saw palmetto is on Florida’s list of commercially exploited plants.

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