ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Florida — South Ponte Vedra Beach has a beautiful coastline, but it seems some people this weekend were more interested in the plants along the roadway.
Saturday at around 9 a.m., a driver by A1A noticed a man hiding on a parcel of land that JEA owns. The vegetation is thick there.
The witness, who did not want to go on camera, said the man was hiding behind a large, concrete utility pole. When he saw her looking at him, he crouched down, apparently trying to hide even more.
The witness took pictures of a pick-up truck that the man hopped into. She said he threw several garbage bags, full of something, into the truck's bed. She remembers five men were in the truck, which pulled up to her. One man told her they had permission to be there.
She was doubtful and scared. She called 911.
What was in the bags? A police report suggests the bags were full of harvested berries from palmetto plants, taken from the property "without permission."
Indeed, picking palmetto berries without a permit and without permission is a crime in Florida.
"I believe it," Danny Lippi said. "Totally believe it."
He is a master arborist. He has heard of illegally picking palmetto berries.
"Oh yeah, for decades," he nodded.
Why would anyone want them?
Lippi said, "It became a homeopathic or holistic thing."
The diet supplement and pharmaceutical industries are interested in the palmetto berries "to treat prostate diseases, enlarged prostate, prostate cancer," he said.
However, the medicinal efficacy of the berries is uncertain.
Still, some people pick the berries on private land without permission. In Florida, that's a crime. As of last year, the state now requires a person to have a permit to pick the palmetto berries, even on his or her own land. Why?
"All this," Lippi pointed to an area under a patch of palmetto. "That's all habitat in there for migratory birds, small vertebrates, mammals, snakes, everything."
And the plant needs the berries, he said.
"This is how these plants reproduce and they're very slow growers," Lippi said. "So if you take all their reproductive portions away, you'll start losing the plants."
Other law enforcement agencies in Florida have arrested people for illegally picking palmetto berries.
As for the truck on A1A, the men in the truck were not caught. It appears they got away with a load of what could be palmetto berries.