Why Georgia Is Now Regulating Saw Palmetto Berry Harvests

The berries from saw palmetto plants are a hot commodity. The berry extract is used in alternative medicine. In the past few years, illegal harvesting has gotten more organized.

Andy Wraithmell

Georgia has a new law governing the sale of saw palmetto berries.

The fruit from the spiky South Georgia plants is a hot commodity, and illegal harvesting has become enough of a problem that the state Legislature passed a bill this year that requires anyone selling saw palmetto berries to have a certificate showing they had permission to harvest them.

Saw palmetto berry extract is used in alternative medicine. It used to be that people would harvest the berries here and there to get a little extra income, said Pamela Garrison, a senior federal wildlife officer at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

“I would just get people coming out after work or on weekends,” she said.

But the past few years, the illegal harvesting has gotten more organized.

“Groups have spotters on the ground watching for me to come by,” she said. “They’ve been camping out there for several days and then bring their berries out at night.”

Garrison said that from August to October, she’s mostly occupied with berry pickers. She’s the only law enforcement officer assigned to the approximately 400,000-acre federal wildlife refuge, though she gets assistance from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the county sheriff.

It’s illegal to take the berries from the wildlife refuge, but Garrison said the pickers are a problem for private land owners, too.

“People are trespassing. And then also they are taking plants that are valuable to the land owner and plants that are also important for wildlife habitat,” she said.

Plus, she said, they frequently leave trash behind.

Florida, which was having similar problems, now requires saw palmetto harvesters to get permits. Garrison said she hopes the Georgia legislation will help address the issues here. Gov. Brian Kemp signed the law earlier this week, and it’s now in effect.