At the Seaside
The tree most associated with the beach is the coconut, a member of the palm family. Coconut trees are hardy and useful. Their fronds, or leaves, can be used to make thatch roofs and mats. The coconut seed, when green, contains coconut milk, a sweet and somewhat viscous drink. When dried, the nut contains coconut meat, which can be used in cooking, baking, or even industry. Coconut trunks can be used for lumber, and the oil is used in cooking and beauty preparations.
Surprisingly, coconuts are not native to the Caribbean. They originated in the western Pacific and eastern Indian Ocean and were brought to the region by early Portuguese voyagers. Coconut trees are adaptable and can withstand significant periods of drought.
Another common seaside plant is the sea grape, or Coccoloba uvifera, a member of the buckwheat family. These adaptable trees grow along both protected and windswept shores. Many bathers find shade and shelter tucked beneath sea grape branches at the beach. The sea grape has round leaves, reaching up to about six inches wide. They produce strings of edible grapelike fruits in cluster, turning from green to purple in fall. The fruits have large pits and range from sour to sweet. They are quite tasty.
Don’t try to eat the fruit of the manchineel, or Hippomane mancinella, tree, a tree so toxic that its sap can take the paint off a car. The fruit of these trees can kill, and even brushing against one can lead to uncomfortable rashes. Manchineels have shiny, dark, elliptical leaves that droop on long, yellowish stalks. Look closely at the junction of the leaf and leaf stalk and you will see a tiny raised dot about the size of a pinhead. Manchineels are the only beach trees with this feature.
Manchineels produce shiny, green fruits that look like apples. Don’t eat them! Also avoid touching the leaves, scratching yourself on the bark, or using the wood for a fire. It is even a bad idea to take shelter under a manchineel during rain, since the rainwater can wash tiny bits of the sap onto your skin.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Virgin Islands, 4th edition