Many sandy beaches along southwest Florida’s coast are dotted with seagrapes, those tall, tangled trees with red-veined, orbicular leaves. Seagrape’s functional importance is highlighted during the summer, when tropical storms threaten and sea turtles dig nests. Often located just inland from sea oats, seagrapes contribute to beach stabilization, which protects our coastal communities from hurricanes and provides sea turtles with nesting habitat. Furthermore, tall seagrapes with dense canopies block artificial lights glowing from developments, so sea turtle adults and hatchlings are more likely to orient towards the natural moonlight reflecting off the Gulf.
Besides on Florida beaches, the salt-tolerant seagrape grows naturally in brightly lit areas with well-drained soils in the Bahamas and West Indies. The 6-12-inch wide leaves may be the most distinguishing botanical characteristic of seagrape, but their flowers lead to a delightful treat. Clusters of white flowers are visited by pollinators, from bees that make a tasty seagrape honey to endangered Schaus’ swallowtails (Heraclides aristodemus ponceanus) in the Florida Keys. After pollination, the masses of flowers turn into bunches of fruits that look like traditional grapes. Although not true grapes, the ripe fruits of our native seagrape can be treated as such. These purple fruits may be eaten out of hand, turned into jelly, or fermented for wine. Strings of new, green seagrapes started appearing on trees in June at Naples Botanical Garden.
Author: Andee Naccarato, Department of Education and Conservation, Naples Botanical Garden
Originally published in the News-Press.