Broad and woody with large, round, leathery leaves, sea grape trees flourish along the Gulf shoreline. Like mangroves, sea grape trees are tolerant of salt and wind, and both combat erosion and shelter animals, including nesting sea turtles. Because of these environmental factors, property owners need a permit before altering shoreline sea grape plants. In late summer, the plant produces clusters of edible grape-like fruits, which contain a large pit and turn deep red or purple when ripe.—Hannah Wallace
The very hard, reddish wood has been used by furniture makers or determined carvers, and it makes for decent firewood. Some cultures boil the wood to make red dye.
The tree is native to Florida and the Caribbean—some say it was the first plant Christopher Columbus encountered in the New World—and it was first classified by European scientists in Jamaica in the late 17th century.
Its scientific name, Coccoloba uvifera, means “red-leaf grape-bearer” (the leaves are usually green, though some have red veins). Though it’s actually a member of the buckwheat family, natives considered it a large mulberry.
The fruits can be boiled and juiced to be turned into jelly or wine—though each one is more pit than meat, so you’ll need a lot. (For a recipe for sea grape jelly, go to our Authentic Florida blog at venicemagazineonline.com.)
Friend to Turtles
On summer nights, when baby sea turtles are hatching, the low, bulky trees block the light from nearby homes and businesses, which could otherwise lead the hatchlings away from the water.
Historically, the tree has been used to treat everything from a sore throat to dysentery. Today, parts of the tree are named in a number of medical-related patents, including treatments for asthma, hyperglycemia and kidney stones.