Polygonaceae (Buckwheat family) Description. Small evergreen tree, often with several twisted trunks and stout branches, 6-12 m (20-40 ft) tall. Trees along ocean shorelines are usually smaller and shrubby. Round, very stiff, leathery leaves alternate, simple, 20-25 cm (8-10 in) in diameter. Leaves show a prominent red midvein beginning at base of the leaf. Dioecious, yellowish-white flowers are produced in long pendent spikes up to 25 cm (10 in) long. Fruits round, 1-2 cm (0.4-0.8 in) in diameter, with one seed. Fruits ripen at different intervals and will change color from light green to purple or dark red.
Origin and Distribution. The seagrape is native along the coasts of tropical America, including the Caribbean Islands and southern Florida. The tree is widely planted for its edible fruits and as an ornamental, especially along coastlines because of its high resistance to dry, salty coastal conditions.
Food uses. The slightly acidic tasting, grapelike fruits are eaten fresh from the tree or made into jelly and jams. The ripe fruits are fermented to produce sea-grape wine.
Comments. The genus Coccoloba comprises 120-150 species, all native to tropical America. The hard but not termite-resistant wood of the seagrape is prized for cabinet making and as firewood. The bark and wood were commonly used to produce a red dye, also called West Indian kino. In traditional medicine, the very astringent decoction of bark and roots was used to treat diarrhea and throat infections.
The seagrape is very important in preventing erosion of sandy beaches and serves as a salt- and windbreak. The closely related species C. caracasana (p. 79) grows commonly along riverbanks in Central and northern South America and is valued for its fruits and as a shade tree.
Description. Medium-sized deciduous tree, 10-20 m (33-66 ft) tall. Alternate, dark green, leathery leaves. Oblong to elliptic, entire blades 6-12 cm (2.4-4.8 in) long by 3-5 cm (1.2-2 in) wide with a characteristic whitish-gray tomentose underside. Hermaphroditic small white flowers are produced in terminal and axillary racemes 8-10 cm (3-4 in) long. Fruits are yellow-orange drupes 5-8 cm (2-3 in) long with a yellow to orange somewhat fibrous pulp and a single large seed; they lose their astringency when fully ripe and have an aromatic, sweet-sour to sweet taste.
Origin and Distribution. Native from southern Mexico and Belize south to Panama, where the tree grows in seasonally dry and premontane forests. The olosapo is occasionally cultivated as a dooryard tree within its natural range, especially close to the Pacific coast of Central America. A very local but popular fruit, rarely cultivated in other tropical regions.
Food uses. Fully ripe fruits, which have a taste and texture similar to the canistel (Pouteria campechiana, p. 193), are usually eaten fresh. Underripe fruits are sometimes eaten with salt and lime juice.
Comments. The tree is also known by the synonym Hirtella polyandra.
Description. Large, evergreen, cauliflorous tree 2035 m (66-115 ft) tall. Alternate, simple, narrowly elliptic leaves, 20-25 cm (8-10 in) long by 8-10 cm (3-4 in) wide. Flowers and fruits are borne on numerous stalks up to 2 m (6.6 ft) long that emerge from the trunk and cover most of it in a dense tangle. Large, orange-red, strongly scented, bee-pollinated, very showy flowers, with 6 petals and numerous pink stamens, are attached to a white, fleshy disk that is bent upward. Large spherical brown fruits, measuring 20-30 cm (8-12 in) in diameter, hang like cannonballs on the sides of the trunk. Fruits contain up to 300 seeds embedded in a soft gelatinous pulp.
Origin and Distribution. Native to tropical lowland regions of the Amazon and Orinoco basin of northeastern South America and parts of Central America and the Caribbean. The tree often grows close to rivers or in seasonally flooded forests.
Widely cultivated in the tropics as an eye-catching ornamental and botanical curiosity.
Food uses. The large fruits, which have a gelatinous consistency and a sour taste, are edible and occasionally eaten as fruit. The fruits were supposedly eaten for nourishment by shamans of South American tribes.
Comments. Leaves, flowers, and fruits play an important role in traditional tribal medicine of tropical South America. The leaves were used to cure skin diseases, and other plant parts like fruits and flowers possess antibacterial and antifungal properties. The wood is used in construction and furniture making.
The fruits have no apparent means of dispersal and were probably dispersed by now-extinct mammals like the giant ground sloth (Megatherium sp.).
Description. Small evergreen tree, 8-10 m (2633 ft) tall, with a broad growth habit. Ovate, leathery leaves, 5-18 cm (2-7 in) long, borne in small clusters of 3-5. Greenish-yellow, bell-shaped flowers borne singly, directly on the stem and larger branches. Petals often have thin purple stripes. Large round or ovoid green fruits, 20-45 cm (818 in) wide, with hard, woody exocarp with smooth shiny surface. The soft white pulp turns almost black when fully ripe and contains numerous brown seeds. Origin and Distribution. Probably native to southern Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. The tree originally spread in prehistoric times to South America. It is adapted to a wide range in temperature and precipitation, growing in tropical and subtropical perhumid climates or in regions with a distinct dry season. Often cultivated as an ornamental. Introduced into tropical Africa and Asia, where in some parts it has become naturalized.
Food uses. The very unripe, tender fruits are preserved in vinegar or candied. The edible seeds are occasionally roasted, salted, and eaten as a snack or used in a protein-rich drink.
Comments. The plant is best known for its hard, dry fruit shells, which have been used for millennia as vessels for liquids and as cups, bowls, plates, spoons, and musical instruments.
The closely related species C. alata, also native to Central America, is distinguished from C. cujete by its trifoliate leaves and smaller fruits.