Bees and Sea Grape Trees
We often blog about the importance of native plants for native bees and even for honeybees.
Sea grape (bay grape) trees Coccoloba uvifera are common native trees in parts of central and south Florida as well as throughout the Caribbean and South America. Although early Europeans saw the fruit of this tree as sea-grapes, natives considered the fruits to be mulberry. They are not grapes. Sea grape trees belong to the buckwheat family.
Male and female flowers grow on male and female trees, so they need pollinators to cross-pollinate them. When you buy a small tree, it is hard to know if it is a male or female tree. The flowers are rich in nectar, making the sea grape tree an important nectar plant for bees and other insects locally. Actual sea grapes only grow on female trees.
In this 0:36-second video by 151show you can see hundreds of honeybees pollinating sea grape trees in Jamaica:
The leaves are large, at up to 9 inches across, and are rounded and heart shaped. The flowers are ivory-colored and appear in spring as stalked spikes up to 10-12 inches long.
After flowering, the female plants produce green fruits in June and by late summer or fall they mature and turn red-to-purple around August to October. There are up to 50 fruits in a cluster.
The sea grape grows up to 25-30 feet tall in coastal areas along beaches, and near sand dunes. It is variable, so it can be evergreen, semi-deciduous or deciduous. This tree and root system are highly important in helping to stabilize and maintain the beach and sand dunes from erosion.
It is protected by law along barriers and sand dunes so you should not randomly pick fruit just because you see a tree. Ensure you have permission if it is on private land. Keep in mind that the tree may have been treated with pesticide and there may be pesticide on the fruit.
Boil the ripe fruit with a small bit of water until the fruit is quite soft. Mash and then extract juice from all the seeds by using a cheesecloth. The juice is a pretty shade of pink. Mix it with sugar, stevia, or xylitol, and add some of your favorite citrus juice or vanilla or orange extract. Experiment with your favorite fruit flavors. Cook until you get it to the desired temperature, and then pour the mixture into jars. If you have never prepared jams or jellies before, you can read the procedure here to decide if you want to give it a try.
Sea grapes are sweet with some acidity, and some people find them tasty while others say they are bland, so it is a very personal opinion. The actual tightly packed fruits are velvety, elliptic, egg or almond-shaped, small (3/4-inch long) and each fruit contains a large seed. You need a lot of fruit to extract enough juice to make preserves in the kitchen. According to some people, a quart of fruit roughly yields a cup of sea grape juice.
In the herbal bush medicine world, across the Caribbean, it is believed that this plant helps with many health issues ranging from digestive and liver disruptions to blood pressure and inflammation. A decoction from leaves is said to help with asthma, throat hoarseness and cleans wounds. The juice and decoction from wood, bark and roots is said to help with venereal disease, dysentery, hemorrhages, rashes, and skin problems.
Nutrients in sea grapes are iodine, Vitamin K, Folate and Vitamin A. Sea grapes can be eaten fresh from the tree, or they can be used to make wines, jams, jellies and even vinegar.
This exotic jelly is a unique tropical gift for loved ones, and adds a rare fruity flavor to special Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners as a thin glaze on vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, and green beans.
Sea grape tree sap is used for dyeing and tanning leather in the West Indies and Jamaica. The wood can be used in furniture, to make charcoal and as firewood or for cooking in cold weather. Birds eat these fruits and disperse the seeds.
Unusual features of this tree are that although it is a tropical tree it goes through leaf color change, starting out orange, going green, and ending up rust colored. Also, the seeds cannot be stored for future planting. Once gathered, they must be planted immediately.
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