Florida’s native saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) recently made the news. It was added to Florida’s list of Commercially Exploited Plants in July 2018. This means that commercial collectors of saw palmetto fruits must acquire landowners’ permission and a state collecting permit before collecting the fruits. It joins native orchids, ferns, cycads and others already on the list. Cinnamon and royal ferns are on the list because they were collected for their masses of fibrous roots that were previously used as a growing medium for orchids and other epiphytes.
In the past, saw palmetto has been considered to be a weed in Florida. It is common in some areas and is difficult to kill and remove. In recent years, as so many natural areas have been cleared, saw palmetto has grown in popularity as a landscape plant. At about the same time, its fruits became popular as a non-prescription treatment for prostate issues for men. While medical researchers continue to debate its effectiveness, it is thought by some to relieve a wide variety of issues, including problems with urination, certain types of hair loss, coughing, headaches and sore throats. Research continues and it may be that saw palmetto or a compound derived from it will be found to have clear medical benefits someday. Talk to your doctor if you want to try saw palmetto supplements. It may have some side effects and interactions with prescription drugs. In particular, one medical website urges women who are pregnant or breastfeeding to not take saw palmetto supplements.
Native Americans have used saw palmetto for a variety of uses. Its fruits were eaten. The leaves were used to thatch dwellings and to weave baskets. Cordage was made from its fibers. The plant was a source of oil and wax. It was used to treat several health issues by the Native Americans, too.
Saw palmetto is a very adaptable, easy landscape plant, tolerating sun, shade, a wide variety of soils, and both moist and dry conditions. Young plants are slow growing at first but can become large, bushy plants in time. It is unusual among palms in that its stems can be cut to control its size and will sprout new shoots behind the cuts. Leaf color ranges from green to silvery blue. Saw palmettoes can be seen along the lake loop path at the Jacksonville Arboretum and Gardens and along some of the nature trails.
by Chuck Hubbuch