Common names: Sea grape, seagrape
Origin: Native to coastal regions of south Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and South America
Where it will grow: Hardy to 24 degrees Fahrenheit (USDA zones 9b to 11; find your zone), possibly to 20 degrees with protection
Water requirement: Low
Light requirement: Partial to full sun
Mature size: Up to 35 feet tall and wide; can be maintained as a shrub
Benefits and tolerances: Drought tolerance and salt tolerance make sea grape an ideal tree or shrub for coastal locations. Its strong yet flexible wood helps it stand up to tropical storms, and it can recover from brief flooding. Its flowers attract pollinators, and its fruits attract birds.
Seasonal interest: When a male and female tree are present, it produces fragrant flowers from late spring to early summer and long bunches of fruit through summer. New leaves emerge shiny and coppery, and old leaves take on intense hues of yellow, orange and red.
When to plant: Fall through spring; if planting in summer, water often for the first few weeks
Walking along a beach while the sea grapes are in bloom is an unforgettable experience, thanks to their sweetly fragrant leaves, but it’s the resulting fruit that most people are after. The so-called “grapes” hang down in clusters in summer, turning from green to purple when they are ripe and ready for picking. They can be eaten out of hand but are at their best when made into preserves or sea grape wine. You need only a female tree to produce flowers, but you will need both a male and female tree for pollination and subsequent fruit.
Some find the flowers and fruit to be messy, so either plant sea grape well away from paved surfaces or spray the debris off with a hose.
You don’t have to live on the beach to enjoy sea grapes, though. They can be grown inland just as easily, and it’s there that they really stand out the most. Use them as a replacement for invasive exotic trees such as banyans and Schefflera.
Keep them clipped to form a large hedge, prune out the lower branches to create a stunningly architectural tree, or let them grow loosely in a naturalistic garden. Plant sea grapes among finely textured plants to show off their coarse leaves to best effect. Other Florida natives that make good companions for sea grapes include coontie (Zamia floridana, zones 8b to 11), dwarf yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana’, zones 7 to 11), coral bean (Erythrina herbacea, zones 8 to 11) and blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella, zones 3 to 11).
An unexpected yet totally appropriate way to grow sea grapes is as houseplants; they add a touch of the West Indies. I created the combination planting shown here with just that in mind. When grown indoors they require average humidity, moist soil and a brightly lit room to grow at their best. Common pests include scale insects and mealybugs, especially on plants that are stressed by drought, but those are easily removed by hand or with insecticidal soap and a paper towel.
The leaves will be damaged by frost or below-freezing temperatures, but established trees will recover from temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit. I have successfully grown sea grape as a returning perennial at the edge of zone 8b and 9a in Jacksonville, Florida, by planting it in a protected location under a tree. You can find established bushes as far north in the state as St. Augustine.
Sea grape is easy, durable and just has so much personality that you’ll find yourself giving your specimen plant a pet name, as I did with my own. (Her name is Peppy.) Whether you’re trying to add local flavor to your coastal tropical garden or just trying to bring a little resort style to your home, sea grapes are sure to bring a smile to your face as well.
More: How to Make Your Oceanfront Garden Thrive