If you have visited any coastal areas of Belize be it on the mainland or on the Cayes, you will have come cross the Sea Grape Tree interspersed with Sea Almond and soaring Coconut Palms. Scientifically known as the Coccoloba uvifera, Tidibu Beibei in Garifuna and Uva de Mar in Spanish, it is actually related to the buckwheat family of plants. The tree is a great beach stabilizer tending to sprawl in high winds and become bushy. In a more protected environment it can grow up to 35 feet. The branches are covered in broad, circular, leather hard, bright green leaves that have a red central vein running through the center. These leaves can be boiled until the water is purple and then the extract drunk to lower blood pressure. The hard wood of the sea grape tree makes excellent firewood and historically was used to carve weapons, whilst the red core was used for dye.
Sea grape trees can survive pretty much anything – sand, salt, wind (even hurricane force). The one thing that doesn’t sit well with them is frost. Luckily frost is not something we get much of in Belize. Each sea grape tree is either male or female and needs cross pollination via bees or other insects in order for the fruit to develop. The fruit of the tree appears in late summer as a green “grape” approximately 2 cm in diameter and ripens to a purple color by late July/August. These grapes appear in hanging clusters much like the traditional grape on vines. In contrast to the grape, the pit is very large and makes up most of the fruit. As a result, they aren’t very juicy and can be a bit on the tart side. Kids however love them and in late Summer it has long been a Belizean tradition to scour the beach in search of trees, climbing and shaking the trees to release the ripened fruit. Kids eat them directly from the tree or collect them in buckets for later. Birds also love the fruits as do termites who often build their nests on the branches.
A tasty jelly can be made by boiling the ripe grapes to extract the juice, straining through a mesh bag adding sugar and pectin and boiling until set. The grapes can also be fermented to produce wine and vinegar. It takes a lot of sea grapes to make a little juice, so patience is a necessity but without doubt you will be reaping the fruits of your labor as any end product is delicious.