GASPARILLA MAGAZINE JULY/AUG 2016 58 By Marcy Shortuse For many who spend many lazy summer days at the beach, sea grapes have been ingrained in their mind to the point they are virtually ignored. Gasparilla Island is chock-full of the native plants, which are a vital part of our natural ecosystem. The bright green berries get bigger and bigger as the temperature climb higher and higher, then eventually ripen to a deep purple color right around the time hurricane season is peaking. The birds love them, the iguanas love them, and yes, many people love them, too. Also known as coccoloba uvifera, sea grapes are a very salt-tolerant plant. They are vital to the beach’s infrastructure, as they form a natural barrier between the sea and the land. They catch sand that would otherwise blow away, act as a windbreak for homes on the beach, and their thick roots intertwine into the dunes, helping to hold them in place. They are also prime spots for animals and birds to make their homes, as they are very dense. Tall sea grape plants can form a valuable barrier between beaches and development on coastlines so that lights from the human structures will not reach the beach and disturb the nesting sea turtles. The fruit of the sea grape is a berry, which grows in grape-like clusters. It is a staple source of food for a number of native birds and mammals. The leathery, broad leaves of sea grape may grow to be 10 inches wide. The male and female flowers are on separate plants and require cross-pollination by honeybees and other insects in order to bear fruit. Sea grapes are actually not grapes at all, but are part of the buckwheat family instead. Most sea grapes are low-lying plants that stay closer to the ground if they live on the beach, but inland they can grow to be up to 50-foot-tall trees.
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