In the Florida Keys there may not be towering redwoods, giant elm or ancient oak trees – however, we do have the mighty sea grape! The sea grape is quite a force to be reckoned with, and can be found on every island in our lovely meandering chain of paradise. To me, the sea grape tree epitomizes the Keys as much as all of our types of palms. The sea grape was given its first botanical name of Prunus maritime racemosa, “maritime grape-cluster Prunes”, in 1696 by Hans Sloane. It was named that same year as Uvifera littorea, “grape-bearer of the shore” by Leanoard Plukenet – both of which names reflect the concept of “sea-grape”. This buckwheat relative is a plant like no other, with round, leathery apple-green leaves with bright red veins that catch the sun like natural stained glass.
The berries of the sea grape can be used for much more than ground cover – my grandmother used to make sea grape jam from the ripened berries from the tree. It tastes a bit like apple jelly, delicious on warm, fresh buttered toast on a balmy, breezy morning. Some friends of mine from California visited several years ago and decided to make up a batch of sea grape wine. While it wasn’t Sonoma County Clos du bois Pinot Grigio, it was surprisingly pleasant, with a fruity aftertaste and a fragrance of the tropics.
This tree is found throughout the Caribbean and in all of the Florida Keys, including the little surrounding islands. I’ve been miles out to sea on both the ocean and the bay side of the Keys, and have found sea grape trees in the smallest of islands far from land. And while we may not experience seasons so obviously here, the sea grape does. During the fall and winter, they turn beautiful, stunning colors, inspiring artists to embellish on their beauty.
In Big Pine Key, Artists in Paradise Gallery, as well as in other galleries throughout the Keys and online, have some fabulous pieces of art in different mediums, depicting the beauty and changes of the Sea Grape Tree.
Coccoloba uvifera is quite often used in landscaping, as it is a popular ornamental plant in Florida Keys yards as well as a dune stabilizer in Bahamian islands and a coastal windbreak throughout the Caribbean – and it is one of the few leaves that our little Key Deer will not dine on. Tall sea grape plants are used to make a light barrier between coastlines to protect sea turtles.
“I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree…….” To our lovely Florida Keys Sea Grape tree!