Sea Grapes, or Cocoloba uvifera, are a beautiful tropical plant that is not frost hardy so you can only find it in southern parts of Florida and the Caribbean although I’ve seen them a little farther north.
Sea Grapes are used, like sea oats, to maintain beaches and control erosion. Sea Grapes also provide shelter for birds and help keep lights from homes and traffic off of the beach where there are nesting sea turtles. The plants are protected by FL state laws so please don’t pick the leaves or grapes from plants on public lands (like the beach). It is also against the law to pick them from private land (like your neighbor’s yard) without permission. But, you can grow them in your own back yard.
Sea Grape plants can grow as a single tree or used as shrubbery or a privacy hedge. You can recognize them by their thick branches, large, rounded flat leaves and a stem of grapes growing down from the center of the leaf. Sea Grape plants can grow to be as tall as 30 feet. The leaves can grow to be 8-10 inches in diameter.
Be sure to give them plenty of room to grow. Rule of thumb: plant about 5 feet away from walls (garden and house) and sidewalks. If you decide to hedge the Sea Grapes, you can give less space, maybe 2-3 feet from the walkway, street or property line. Once established, enjoy the shade.
In order to produce grapes, you’ll need at least one male and one female Sea Grape tree. However, there is no way to know if you have either. Let your garden center professional advise you on this one.
The Sea Grape enjoys sandy soil but you can add manure for fertilizer when you first plant it. You can keep it trimmed and shaped if you want a hedge or, with enough room provided for it to grow, you can simply let it grow. Sea Grapes are wind and drought tolerant and provide a great wind-break for your coastal yard.
Be mindful that you will have large, thick leaves falling in your yard and on your driveway with this tree. Left on the grass, they will kill it, so the leaves will have to be picked up regularly.
The Sea Grape leaf can be useful for many tasks and I speak from experience. My kids would use them to shovel sand, make crayon rubbings, use as plates for pretend meals, use as bookmarks (they are thick), and string as garland. My boys made a wreath with the leaves and even wrote notes on them. These notes were mailed to their grandmother as a post card. Yes, the post office took it and delivered it.
I have used the dried grapes and leaves on a wreath, too.
The grapes are edible and rippen in the late summer. There are a few recipes on my other blog: lifealongthegulfcoast.com. Read it here.