Sea grape

Coccoloba uvifera
Family: Polygonaceae

Natural Historysea grape
Sea grape growing on a beach
Photo credit: Tony Pernas, USDI National Park Service, Bugwood.org

The sea grape is an evergreen large shrub or small tree that is common on sandy, rocky shores and sand dunes in South Florida.  The common name refers to the location in which the plant is found as well as to the spherical fruits that hang in clusters resembling bunches of grapes. Sea grape is not a true grape, however, and it belongs to the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae).

Habitat & Range

Sea grape is a coastal tropical species native to the Caribbean basin, including South Florida. In the United States it is mainly found in Florida, Mississippi, and Hawaii. As a drought- and salt-tolerant species that prefers lots of light, the sea grape is typically found near the coast.

Wildlife Use

Sea grape fruits are eaten by many birds which disperse the seeds.  The sea grape also provides a protective habitat on sand dunes for many animals, including beach mice.

Human Use

The sap of the sea grape is used in the West Indies and Jamaica for dyeing and tanning. The edible fruits can be used to make preserves and wine, and the wood is sometimes used for firewood, making charcoal, and even cabinetry. However, sea grape is most often used in landscaping as it is a popular ornamental in South Florida yards. It is also important as a dune stabilizer and coastal windbreak.  Tall sea grape plants can form a valuable barrier between beaches and development on coastlines so that lights from the human structures will not reach the beach and disturb the nesting sea turtles.


 

Identifying Characteristics

Size/Form: Sea grapes have unusually thick trunks that branch out close to the ground.
Bark: The thick, smooth bark has patches of white, gray, and light brown. When cut, the bark exudes an astringent red sap.
Twigs: Twigs are thick, smooth, and stout. Color is orange to brown.
Leaves: The leaves are shiny, leathery, and nearly circular. The leaf arrangement is alternate. The leaves are about 8" in diameter with a large, reddish center vein. The leaves may be a shade of orange when young, green when mature and rust color when older, right before they drop. One distinctive family characteristic is the collar-like sheath called an "ochrea" that is formed around the stem just above each attachment to a petiole.
Flowers: The flowers, which are small and greenish-white, begin to appear in clusters when the plant is 6 to 8 years old. Male and female flowers appear on separate trees.
Fruit: The fruits are spherical and slightly smaller than a table grape. They hang in bunches and mature from green to a vibrant purple.
Similar Trees on the Florida 4-H Forest Ecology Contest List:
  • None. The leaf shape and leaf coloring, along with the presence of an ochrea, should make this species easy to recognize.

 

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