The Multipurpose Sea Grape Tree

Coccoloba uvifera

The versatile sea grape tree can be grown as a focal-point shrub or a tall or low hedge. Coccoloba uvifera can also become a large tree in coastal landscapes where salt spray will slide right off its waxy leaves.

Large sea grape tree's branches overhang a path.

This specimen seagrape tree in Sarasota, Florida has grown so large that its branches arch over this path.

I was able to walk beneath them.

Coccoloba uvifera is native to South Florida and the West Indies where it grows as a shrubby evergreen tree to a height of 30 feet.

Its big, round leaves and charmingly twisted mature branches give it an air of whimsy and puts one in mind of fun times spent on beaches round the world.

Perhaps I feel this way because I've seen it on nearly every beach I've visited in the past 15 years.

In any event, the Florida sea grape has all the qualities any seaside gardener could desire:

  • It is wind resistant. When coastal breezes turn into gales, sea grapes can handle it. In fact, you can plant them as a windbreak.
  • Sea grape leaves are tough. Their slick surface is impervious to sand and salt spray.


Sea Grape Leaves

C. uvifera's leaves are disks from 3-8 inches wide marked by noticeable red veins which turn white with age. They are similar in texture to the leaves of the cashew tree or the fiddle leaf fig.

New foliage is sometimes a bronze color. Old leaves turn coppery brown and crisp before they drop.

These leaves give the sea grape plant its unique beauty but they also create something of a maintenance issue. They do not break down quickly.

Unlike oak leaves which will melt gracefully into the soil, sea grape leaves tend to form a crunchy and impenetrable mat beneath the trees.

In order to insure that water can reach the plant's roots, the fallen foliage will need to be removed periodically.


Seagrape Trees
Frost Tolerance

Sea grape plant in my front yard.

This is the sea grape plant growing in my zone 9a front yard. I planted it against a masonry wall to protect it from our winter freezes.

We are not on the coast so our winter temps are not moderated by close proximity to any large body of water. My sea grape needs all the help it can get.

Even with the heat-radiating wall, the tips of the branches freeze each winter. It freezes to the ground during the occasional hard freeze.

This is as tall as my sea grape tree ever gets between these hard freezes.

It does not achieve this in 1 growing season after being cut to the soil by frost. It takes at least 2 years of mild winters to allow this much growth.

For this reason, sea grapes cannot be grown as landscape trees or for their tasty fruit in this location.

The plant in the image above had been in the ground for several years before it flowered for the first time. Frost will always prune the blossoms off before the fruit has a chance to develop.

This is what the leaves look like after a frost.

The sea grape tree is evergreen only in frost free climates. Here, the leaves fall each winter.


Coccoloba uvifera
Fruit

Seagrapes growing on the tree.

Given enough warmth, a healthy sea grape tree will produce tiny white flowers on long, downward-facing scapes in the summer. Once these barely noticeable blooms drop, the 3/4 inch fruits form.

They turn purple when ripe and resemble table grapes because of their color, form and dangling growth habit.

The fruit is not only edible but desirable.

Those in-the-know boil the ripe grapes down into a juice which they then use to make sea grape jelly. If you want to make some, just substitute the seagrapes for concord grapes in your favorite grape jelly recipe.


Pruning a Sea Grape Tree

Sea grape hedges line both sides of this road in Naples, Florida.

As you can see in this image, these sizable plants can be kept as low as you like by pruning.

To establish it as a hedge (tall or low) or as a windbreak, allow the trunks to branch right down to the ground. Just head back upright stems to control the plant's height.

To train Coccoloba as a tree, select the upright stems you wish to use as trunks. Remove all others. Do not be too hasty to remove the lower branches from the trunk or trunks which remain.

These trunks will grow in diameter more quickly if this growth is left in place for a year or 2. Once the trunk is as thick as you wish it to be, you can remove any shoots growing below the scaffold limbs.

Coccoloba uvifera Pruning Note:

Only seagrapes grown as trees or tall shrubs will fruit. The frequent trimming that a hedge requires will eliminate the flowering wood before it has a chance to produce.


Sea Grape Varieties

Coccoloba uvifera aurea is a variegated sport of the plain green type. Its cream splashed leaves can be depended on to add excitement to tropical landscape designs.

Coccoloba diversifolia is called the pigeon plum. It is very similar to C. uvifera except its leaves and fruit are a bit smaller. When grown in the tropics, a mature pigeon plum will typically be taller than a mature sea grape tree.


Coccoloba uvifera Care

Seagrape care could not be simpler. Site the plants in full sun and sandy soil that drains quickly. Keep them moist until they take hold and develop some drought tolerance.

Plants in containers should be kept evenly moist.



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