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Palmetto Berry Bandits Ripe in Fla.

September 11, 1998

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ The lure of a berry that’s rumored to help male-pattern baldness and enlarge breasts has berry bandits working overtime.

The supply of saw palmetto berries _ olive-shaped fruit used by pharmaceutical and health food companies _ is plentiful this year, and worldwide demand has never been higher.

That’s made it tempting for free-lance pickers, who are paid 25 cents to 30 cents a pound to pounce on thousands of secluded, berry-rich acres in Florida state parks _ even though it’s illegal.

``People aren’t aware of these activities or don’t think of it as poaching,″ said Mark Nelson, manager of Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound. ``But it’s no different than going out and shooting a deer out of a state park.″

Just last week, rangers at Jonathan Dickinson nabbed four men with 2,000 pounds of the berries after just one day of picking at the park about 20 miles north of West Palm Beach. Those arrested face a $500 fine.

``It’s men, women, couples,″ Nelson said of the pickers. ``I wouldn’t want to do it, but for somebody who’s unemployed, I guess it is fairly easy pickings, we’ll say.″

Especially this year, which is yielding huge supplies.

``The orders are the biggest we’ve ever seen,″ said Gerald W. Gettel, president of Saw Palmetto Trading in Frostproof, which will handle 4 million pounds this season.

After picking, the berries are dried and nearly 70 percent are shipped overseas, where most are processed for their oil, Gettel said Thursday. The oil is then put in a soft gel tablet, much like a vitamin E pill, and sold through pharmacies or health food stores. Other berries are ground to powder.

While the saw palmettos’ greatest claim is to help with shrink enlarged prostates, it’s recently been credited with helping men with baldness and enlarging women’s breasts, Gettel said.

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