Mighty sea grape withstands Ivan

Not all species of life on Grand Cayman fared as well as humans from the effects of Hurricane Ivan.

Some types of plant life, and trees in particular, felt the brunt of the storm.

One tree that did fairly well in weathering the storm is the sea grape, or more specifically coccoloba uvifera.

Unfortunately, many sea grape trees have been cleared off properties as hurricane casualties because many people do not realize the remarkable endurance they have, even when knocked over by wind.

Sandy Urquhart, general manager of the West Indian Club Nursery, is well acquainted with sea grape trees, and has used them as part of the landscape schemes in places like the median of the Esterley Tibbetts Highway extension and in the Growing Communities district parks.

He says that as long as part of the tree stays attached to the ground, the tree can survive by creating additional rooting, even if much of its original rooting is exposed from the effect of a storm. ‘The exposed roots will eventually die and just drop off.’

This survival trait of the sea grape is one of the reasons the trees can display such unusual shapes. ‘Their shapes evolve through a hundred years worth of storms,’ Mr. Urquhart says.

The George Town Growing Communities district park was a month away from opening when Hurricane Ivan hit. The park features many sea grape trees, one of which was uprooted during the storm. Mr. Urquhart has no intention of removing the tree. ‘It’s a beautiful shape. We’ll put a park bench behind the roots and let it grow.’

Unlike some trees that have been brought into the Cayman Islands, the sea grape is a native tree that is well suited for the conditions here, including storms.

The tree plays an important role in beach ecology, helping to anchor the sand and prevent storm erosion. It is so valued in this regard that the state of Florida has made it illegal to remove or even extensively prune sea grape trees near the shoreline.

The sea grape tree is highly tolerant to salt spray and salty soil, and can withstand strong sun, heavy winds and even droughts.

‘It’s a very useful tree,’ said Mr. Urquhart. ‘It provides shade, has an edible berry, and produces a wonderful wood.’

Another tree that generally survived Hurricane Ivan very well was the Silver Thatch Palm. Found only in the Cayman Islands, the national tree should be expected to weather storms successfully, said Mr. Urquhart. ‘It is genetically connected to where it grows, and it’s tough.’

Hurricane Ivan also showed which trees are not suited to the environment because they are not native to the country.

The Casuarina tree, also known as the Australian pine, does not have a root structure to withstand hurricanes, as evidenced by the hundreds of downed trees that now litter the Cayman landscape.

‘It’s a dreadful plant,’ said Mr. Urquhart. ‘It’s so aggressive it doesn’t even let its own offspring live.’

So invasive is the Casuarina that it is illegal to import the tree into the United States and many other countries in the world.

Mr. Urquhart realizes that many people think the Casuarina belongs in the Cayman Islands. ‘That’s the problem,’ he says. ‘It’s been here long enough now that people think its native.

Comments are closed.