THE COASTAL COOK: OUR NATIVE SEA GRAPE – A HIDDEN TREASURE IN PLAIN SIGHT

Enjoy the delicious fruit from these trees with the big,
round leaves that you see all over South Florida.

coastalCookSeaGrape

STORY BY WINNIE EDWARDS

Oh those purple berries! They are everywhere this time of year, but what are they?

The sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera), also known as uva de playa in Spanish, is native to South Florida, the Caribbean and South America. It is said that the sea grape was the first plant encountered by Christopher Columbus when he discovered America.

This hearty evergreen has smooth, silvery-brown bark and round, leathery leaves up to 10 inches in diameter with red midribs. In late summer and early fall, female sea grape plants bear grape-like fruit in bunches of up to 75 berries per bunch.

Along the coast, the sea grape is so important to maintaining a healthy dune system and preventing erosion that the state of Florida has protected it, banning removal and restricting trimming of sea grapes in beach areas. Exposed to the high winds of the beach, the plant grows bushy and wide to embrace harsh conditions. In a more sheltered location, the sea grape grows as a tree and can reach heights of up to 35 feet or so.

The plant can be used in a variety of ways. Sea grape wood is used to make furniture; bark extract can be used to tan leather; bark resin can be helpful for throat ailments; the roots have been used to treat dysentery; and the leaves have medicinal properties— in fact, a patent was filed in 2001 to use leaf extracts to control blood sugar levels in diabetics, and another in 2010 to use the leaves, along with citrus extracts, to treat kidney stones.

One home remedy for using sea grape leaves to control blood sugar is to simmer about 10 green leaves in a pot of water until the water turns purple. Remove the leaves, pour the liquid into a glass container and allow it to cool before refrigerating. The cooled liquid is said to be quite refreshing.

The sea grape itself is mostly pit, which is inedible, and there is not enough flesh on the fruit to merit commercial cultivation. But for the individual consumer, the sea grape can be quite “fruitful.” The berries turn from bright green to deep purple as they ripen. Unlike other grapes, sea grapes ripen a few at a time and must be shaken or picked from the stem. I remember that as a child, I would put a towel on the ground or hold my shirt out and shake the tree to dislodge the ripe grapes and snack on them during the months of September and October. Yum!

The tart sweetness of the raw berries might not be to everyone’s taste, but they can be cooked into delicious jellies and jams, or fermented into sea grape wine or even vinegar. Here’s a recipe for Sea Grape Jelly given to me by my mother. Highly coveted by native Floridians, it makes a special gift!

RECIPE

SEA GRAPE JELLY

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