September 13, 2020

Sea Grape: a Fine Florida Native

An enchanting sea grape tunnel
Florida native fruits are even rarer than the rare native Floridian. Oranges came from China via Spain. Everglades tomatoes came from Peru courtesy of the colleagues of the conquistadores who brought the oranges. Sixty-four percent of Florida residents, me included, came to Florida from elsewhere. In my garden, with dozens of fruit varieties, the sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera) is the lone Florida native fruit. As befits its native status, it is markedly hardy. Sea grapes are impressively drought-tolerant. They can withstand hurricane force winds. They don't mind salty soil or salt spray. Their fallen leaves create a carpet of brown discs in the general vicinity of the tree, making their own mulch. And they provide habitat and food for our native wildlife. 

Adding a sea grape to a landscape can provide a tropical look with little effort. A sea grape can showcase a bit of sculptural whimsy - trees with rugged, twisted trunks or protective archways letting in delicate light. A sea grape can make a striking shade tree, with its round, wide, evergreen leaves. On the east coast of Florida at the Blowing Rocks Preserve, sea grapes run along the beach arching overhead to form a tunnel tall enough to walk through. If pruned to a purpose, sea grapes can make a dense hedge, an effective noise barrier, or a coastal windbreak. 

This sea grape hedge separates the sidewalk and beach from a busy roadway

Until I was about fifty, I thought of sea grapes as a beach dune restoration plant with practical versatility in the home landscape. And then I experienced a small but deep shift; I found out that the grapes of the sea grape are edible, and tasty to boot. On a good tree, the fruit is generally sweet with an acid, musky component that keeps my interest. The bees like sea grape pollen, and people like the sweet and spicy taste of the resulting honey. Some folks make sea grape wine and sea grape vinegar. Most popular is sea grape jelly. There are some who can trace a family recipe for sea grape jelly back multiple generations. 

A sea grape tree loaded with strings of grapes

For me, fresh sea grapes take time to collect, eat, and appreciate. They are easy to pick, but the grapes in a cluster don't ripen all at once. One grape may ripen one day, another couple may ripen a few days later, and a few more may ripen as the first one is starting to dry up. You pick them or shake them off the tree, when they turn purple. Picking them is, of necessity, an unhurried affair as you move from cluster to cluster looking for the purple fruits. The grapes are small, with a pit that takes up most of the volume of the fruit. The edible skin and flesh form a thin covering around the pit. Once picked, eating a sea grape is not really a matter of chewing. You pop it in your mouth and methodically suck/scrape the flesh off the pit. From an energy perspective, it's possible that you won't gain in food energy what you expend in harvest and eating energy. 

A string of sea grapes - some ripe (purple), some ripening, and some unripe. 

The act of picking and eating these small fruits is more an act of tasty meditation than one of physical sustenance. As I pick, I notice the anoles scurrying around. I see spider webs that glisten in the sunlight. I notice the sea grape’s leaves in all stages of growth, from budding bronze to mature green, and aging to yellow, orange, and brown. If I am near the beach, where sea grapes are happiest, I enjoy the susurrus of the waves and the smell of the ocean. To top it all off, the pleasing flavor of the sea grapes always leaves me wanting more. 

A male sea grape produces no fruit.

Predictably, not all sea grape trees produce fruit prodigiously. Male trees produce no fruit. Female trees with no male nearby may not make grapes. Most importantly, the sea grape along the sidewalk by my house produces fruits that seem to fall off before they are entirely ripe. My tree is a monster, thirty five feet tall, with grape clusters up high and out of reach. By the time I look up to shake some down, they are all gone. I know that my tree is making fruit, because every year a few seedlings pop up around the base of the tree. Some of my neighbors' trees are better producers. The sea grapes in my neighborhood mature in September, just after school starts and right at the height of hurricane season. It could be that my mind is generally on other matters, when my sea grapes are ripening. I could mooch off my neighbors' trees. They probably wouldn't mind, since most of them are elsewhere in September. The aftermath of sea grape season is fruit stains on the road, where the ripe sea grapes landed after falling from a tree. My neighbors would probably thank me for helping to keep the roads a little cleaner. But my plan is to bring my sea grape down in stature, giving me a chance to harvest some of its fruit. 

Here is my 35' tall sea grape (center). It dwarfs the 15-20' palm (right).
The man next to the wall is 6' tall, standing on top of a 6' tall berm.
The bottom branches of the sea grape were recently pruned.

After realizing that the grapes were edible, I also discovered that the leaves, the fruit, the bark, the sap, and the roots are all used in traditional medicine. Someone in the U.S. even tried to patent the use of the leaves. In the quirky environment of what is patentable, the patent application for a sea grape leaf extract to treat diabetes was approved back in 2000. The patent has since expired. I have to wonder whether traditional medical practitioners in Togo, who evidently use sea grape leaves to lower blood sugar, had gotten wind of the patent and whether they were miffed. 

Red-veined sea grape leaves are quite striking up close.
New leaves are bronze colored.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind, when picking sea grapes. First, walking on sea grape leaf litter is not recommended as they slip and slide underfoot. Think of the cartoon image of slipping on a banana peel. Second, by Florida statute, it is illegal to harvest sea grapes on public land or on private land without the owner's permission. This is another reason to grow your own sea grapes. If you grow your own, you don't have to worry about endangering coastal dunes or breaking the law, when you eat one. 

Sea grapes are self-mulching, dropping some of their leaves every so often.
Watch your step. These dead leaves slide around easily.

For my friends in colder regions: Sea grapes are not frost tolerant. As such, they don't even grow in most of Florida; they stick to the coasts of South and Central Florida. Other than growing a sea grape bonsai, I can't think of any reason to grow a sea grape in a container. Instead, consider the fruit trees that are native to your area. Growing native fruit supports the diminishing pollinators and beneficial insects as well as birds and other native wildlife. Native North American fruits were often overlooked by European settlers. Instead, they imported apples, cherries, pears, and oranges. And that's what many of us grew up eating. Depending on where you live, you might find that blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, Concord grapes, or American persimmons are native to your area. When grown in favorable conditions, these native fruits tend to be hardy and easy to grow. 

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