Postcards from the Beach
by Lynka Woodbury, Herbarium Curator
Drawings by Elizabeth Smith
Drawings by Elizabeth Smith
When sailing along the shoreline most anywhere in the New World tropics, you see the distinctive shapes of palms and seagrapes dominating the coast. The palms wave long feathery arms; the seagrapes extend stiff arms bangled with round saucer bracelets. Both of the hardy, oceanside fruits provide precious shade and sustenance. The coconut provides the main course and water; the seagrape offers dessert and wine. A few grapes picked from the low, sprawling branches of the seagrape will quench your thirst and provide a sweet-tart tasty snack.
Coccoloba uvfera, seagrape, has been a favorite plant of mine for many years. When I was a child, its sturdy red and tan leaves became paper for my pictures, scoops for my sand sculptures, corrals for captive hermit crabs and plates for my lunch. Years later, while working on sailing boats in the Caribbean, I used seagrape leaves as canvases for mini-paintings and wrote messages on their smooth surfaces to send home as postcards from the beach.
Seagrapes growing right on the beach spread their branches low, hugging the ground to avoid the sea winds. These limbs become wonderful shady benches swinging gently like the finest hammocks. Touch the ornamental bronze and pink new leaves; they are soft and silky. Middle-aged leaves have prominent veins of bright pink, an attractive contrast to the yellow-green blades. Older leaves, tough and hard, change color before carpeting the ground in ruby and emerald.
Abundant clusters of greenish red grapes hang in from the branches in late summer. From August to October, they ripen to a velvety purple. Thin, sweet, slightly acid pulp surrounds a single, large stone. Since the clusters ripen unevenly, berries are best harvested at intervals by shaking the branches over a sheet spread out under the tree. A delicious, brilliant amethyst jelly, which is slightly salty, can be made from the grapes. Recipes for seagrape soup, juice and wine can be found in Tropical Fruit Recipes (Rare Fruit Council, International Inc).
Coccoloba is one of the few trees in the Polygonaceae (Buckwheat) family. There are two native Coccoloba species: C. uvfera, a coastal scrub plant, and C. diversfolia, which grows in hammocks, forming a tall tree. The most distinguishing feature of the species is the ‘buckwheat’ ring, a dark tube around the stern at each node which protects the base of each petiole. These rings are sheathing stipules called ochrea. They attach the leaves firmly and protect the buds, both with their physical grip and with mucilage secreted by minute hairs inside the ochrea. The mucilage, an adaptation to the dry, sunny, salty, windy beach also keeps the buds from drying out.
Coccoloba flowers have been described as perfect (having both male and female components). However, observation indicates that trees are dioecious, with staminate and pistillate plants readily distinguishable. Some trees set fruit and others do not. Another oddity is the fruit. Typically, fruit is a ripened ovary, but Coccoloba fruit is formed of enlarged fleshy sepals surrounding a dry fruit.
Coccoloba is widely cultivated as an ornamental in many Polynesian islands, and in Hawaii, where it has naturalized. The first records of cultivated Coccoloba in Europe are a 1690 reference in England and a 1697 reference in Leiden Botanic Garden. In 1832, it was featured in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (59: p1. 3130).
The seagrape is an excellent honey plant, makes wonderful fences, and can even be espaliered, to make a single-railed, many-posted fence. Coccoloba was the inspiration for the reggae song “Under the Coccoloba” by Josey Wales, and is always an inspiration for me.
Garden News January 1999