The sea grape tree is native to the West Indies, the eastern coast of Central America and the Northeastern coasts of South America. It can reach up to 30 feet tall but is generally smaller as it often grows in coastal areas where winds tend to suppress the size of the tree.
The sea grape has large rounded leaves and clusters of edible fruits. On a hot day the leaves make an ideal fan; they are very tough and don’t mind sandy soil and salt spray. They are mostly found growing along the seaside and benefit from the light reflected from the water.
While walking along the shore, look for the fruits that cluster on these beautiful trees.
The flesh is edible and contains a singe seed. This fruit is generally eaten raw, but can be processed into jellies or drinks. They remain green and hard for a long time, but eventually change to their mature deep purple colour. The following is taken from Wild Trees in the Cayman Islands by Fred Burton, with illustrations by Penny Clifford.
The sea grape is an unmistakable tree, conspicuous for its large circular leaves with red veins.
It has pale grey bark which sheds woody flakes to reveal rich orange-brown patches beneath.
This is a tree characteristic of sandy beach ridges, where sea grape forms dense thickets stunted near the vegetation line by wind and salt spray.
In deep shade beneath the tree canopy, the trunks grow almost bare of leaves, branching from ground level and spreading in all directions in complex, but beautiful tangles.
The ground is always densely carpeted with fallen sea grape leaves: a dry sea grape leaf makes a good sail for a toy boat built from Red Birch wood. The conspicuous flower spikes are pale yellow and the clusters of edible “grapes” turn from green to purple when ripe.
They are still eaten and used to make sea grape jelly and are also a popular food for parrots and other birds, as well as the Rock Iguanas on Little Cayman.
Oral history suggests some of the larger sea grape trees in Cayman must be at least 150 years old.
Sea grape is still abundant on coasts of all three of the Cayman Islands, though most sea grape thickets are now very fragmented by clearing for coastal housing and hotels. This tree grows throughout the Islands and on the mainland coast of the Caribbean. It can be propagated by cuttings, air layering or seed and if given plenty of water and good soil, it will grow reasonably fast.
This column was submitted by Erica Daniel, education programmes coordinator at the National Trust.
For more information, visit www.nationaltrust.org.ky or call 749-1121.