Saw Palmentto: A Multi-talented Member of the Palm Family

Photos by Jordan Robitaille

If you were stranded on an island, which plant would you want growing there? Serenoa repens, a scrubby perennial member of the Arecaceae family, might be a sensible choice. This versatile native, bestowed its common name by William Bartram, is one of the most multipurpose plants in the southeast.

Serenoa repens
Serenoa repens

Its ethnobotanical uses include food and medicine and other uses including fiber, oil, wax, paper, and roofing materials. Native people of the southeast used its stems and leaves to make baskets, brushes, dolls, rope, and other useful items. Cedar Key was the home to a company that manufactured paper from saw palmetto fibers. In the early 1900s, a soda was even produced from the berries and marketed under the name “Metto” by a Jacksonville based company and distributed throughout the state. The strong, and to some offensive taste of the berries, may offer a clue about why this beverage had short-lived fame!

However, saw palmetto berries provide sustenance for bears, white-tail deer, foxes, raccoons, and gopher tortoises. The plants themselves offer habitat for reptiles, birds, and small mammals. Even deer use saw palmetto for cover, and black bears love the berries as well as the tender “hearts” of the new leaves.

Found abundantly in pinelands, hammocks, sandy prairies, and coastal dunes throughout Florida, S. repens also grows in moist grasslands. This highly flammable plant is fire adapted and new leaf growth begins as early as a few days following a burn.

Saw edge of S. repens
Saw edge of S. repens

Serenoa repens is sometimes confused with Sabal minor. To indentify “saw” palmetto look for sawlike teeth on the leaf petioles. S. minor has smooth petioles. The leaves of S. repens are fan-shaped and up to a meter wide. The fragrant tiny white flowers have 3 to 5 petals and are borne on showy, branched inflorescences, blooming late spring through mid-summer. The black, oblong, berries mature in mid to late fall.

Although the berry is bitter and slightly astringent, the nutritional value is high and contains fatty acids and sterols, sugars, resins and tannins, and small amounts of beta carotene. S. repens was an important dietary adjunct for native people living in the southeast and even served to save the lives of early settlers in some cases. According to Spanish explorer Hernando Descalante Fontaneda (Austin), the Calusas ate the berries fresh and the Choctaw people dried them for use in the winter.

The base (heart) of the terminal bud can be removed and eaten in salads or lightly steamed (Deuerling and Lantz). And unlike cabbage palm, harvesting these “hearts of palm” will not kill the plant. They are not however, as tasty as the succulent base of the cabbage palm. The flowers are a favorite of bees, and honey from hives near S. repens is quite robust delicious.

As a medicine, S. repens has a long history of successful use in the treatment of various urinary and reproductive complaints (for both men and women), including cystitis; treats upper respiratory irritation and infection; and is considered adaptogenic by some herbalists (Kuhn and Winston). The most popular use in modern times is for prostate issues and is typically used in the form of standardized extracts.

Because most people do not enjoy the taste of saw palmetto berries, teas or infusions made from the dried berries are an acquired taste, but a syrup made from the berries makes this remedy palatable. The seeds, high in fatty acids, can be ground and blended into foods (Duke), although it is more efficient to use standardized extracts for medicinal purposes.

Saw palmetto habitat
Saw palmetto habitat

Although saw palmetto is not endangered, it has come under assault as “wildcrafters,” spurred by large commercial production of herbal extracts, overharvest the berries which removes food from the animal habitats and potentially reduces the population of S. repens. A large part of the harvests are sent overseas.

Cautions: Saw palmetto has no safety concerns; however, people with digestive issues may experience gastric distress or loose stools from ingestion of the berries. Remember to correctly identify plants before harvesting and using them. And if you are unsure, consult with experienced foragers and herbalists before eating or using plants from the wild.

References

Austin, D. 2004. Florida Ethnobotany. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Deuerling, R. J. and Lantz, P. S. 1995. Florida’s Incredible Wild Edibles. Orlando FL: Florida Native Plant Society.

Duke, J. 1999. Dr. Duke’s Essential Herbs. Rodale Reach.

Kuhn, M. A. and D. Winston. 2000. Herbal Therapy and Supplements: A Scientific and Traditional Approach. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Winston, D. 1999. Saw Palmetto for Men and Women. Pownal, VT: Storey Books.

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One Response

  1. Very interesting – and we thought it was just the berries which were useful for the prostate! Good article.

    Posted on December 11th, 2008 at 5:09 pm

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