The Seminoles, Eli Lilly, and the Ancient Saw Palmetto of Florida

: Stephen A. Schwarzman Building / Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views. Date between 1868 and 1910

Florida’s vegetation reminds me of a willful, obstinate child. You know, the one who seems to be everywhere all at once and defies  all the rules, crossing the line on limits, chocolate smeared across her face, filched from a secret and forbidden stash.

Wild and ungovernable, in other words.

And saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is one of the wildest of Florida plants. Gaze out your car window as you speed through the swamp-rich interior of the state and you’ll see saw palmetto jutting from the highest banks near the dark swirling water. Walk toward the dunes on the Gulf coast and you’ll be joined by clumps of saw palmetto. Don’t forget the pine-dense regions of north Florida, where the canopies of  tall drink-of-water trees shadow  undergrowth thick with saw palmetto , covering every empty inch of the sandy earth lying below.

No matter how many years I’d lived in Florida, no matter the number of days I’d spent on fleeting visits, I rarely paid much attention to the ubiquitous saw palmetto. The last time I crossed the border from Georgia into Florida, I began noticing it more.  There it was again, as it always had been. It’s a plant, the saw palmetto is, that suggests the primitive, the uncivilized, the days of giant mammals and of the even more colossal dinosaurs.

Like cycads – which actually did exist while dinosaurs tromped on earth, palms such as the saw palmetto in Florida date back millenia.  Native Americans of the Seminole group used saw palmetto berries as food. The berries appear yearly and compare in size with olives, resembling olives, too, in that they come with a pit. And Native Americans wove the leaves into baskets used for toting medicines, according to Rodale’s 21st-Century Herbal by Michael Balick (2014) .  Spanish settlers and explorers such as Hernando de Soto roasted and ate the hearts (apical meristems) of the saw palmetto in the 16th century, a practice that they perhaps learned from Native Americans. Described as “citrusy, smoky, with woody overtones,” palmetto honey provides a modern delicacy that’s alas becoming rather scarce. Migrant farm workers harvest most of the palmetto berries that go to making different herbal products these days. Like cassava, the roots of the saw palmetto survive fires well, ensuring the growth of folded green leaves a few weeks after a major fire.

Yellow Jacket sucking on a palmetto berry (Credit: Bob Peterson)

Popular medicinal beliefs encouraged the use of saw palmetto in the formulation of medicines for prostate and urogenital issues, among other conditions. Eli Lilly & Company built a palmetto drying factory in Vero Beach, Florida in 1906. The National Formulary added saw palmetto in 1926, but removed it in 1950. Nearly fifty years later, saw palmetto appeared once again in the Formulary. Modern research suggests that there’s something to that, in the case of benign prostatic hyperplasia. However, that remains to be confirmed.

Turpentine factory, North Florida (Credit: C. Bertelsen)

What remain true, however, is the lure of these plants. Their fan-like leaves glow as the afternoon sun settles in the west, casting a golden hue over the ridges, emphasizing their unusual shape. Skunks, owls, wild turkeys, and other wild life live beneath the green roofs provided by these leaves. Scores of tiny gray sand skinks scurry about in the white sand, hidden by the long reach of these fantastic leaves. And fantastic they are, not in the sense of “fantastic = great,” but rather “fantastic = astonishing.” Slow-growing these plants may be, but tenacious. Some plants, according to the Smithsonian, may be over 700 years old.

Wild and ungovernable, yes.

Fort Matanzas, near St. Augustine, Florida (Credit: C. Bertelsen)

[Note: Portions of the information about Eli Lilly come from the National Geographic Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine (2008), by Steven Foster and Rebecca L. Johnson. If you wish to grow saw palmetto, you’d do best to use seeds or rhisome cuttings. It’s for all practical purposes a maintenance-free plant.]

© 2017 C. Bertelsen