Neotropical Altingiaceae

Jon L.R. Every

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK. 


Trees, sometimes up to 40 m tall, deciduous, monoecious; secretory canals containing aromatic, resinous compounds present in the bark, wood and leaves; sapwood white; indumentum simple, only present in axils of leaf nervation, otherwise glabrous. Leaves alternate, spiraling, long petiolate, simple, palmately 3-7 lobed, margins finely serrate, dentate or rarely entire, venation palmate, actinodromous; stipules small, deciduous, borne on the petiole base. Inflorescences indeterminate, long pedunculate; staminate inflorescences of terminal racemes composed of stamen clusters; pistillate inflorescences axillary, pendent globose heads. Flowers small, unisexual or andro-monoecious, actinomorphic, sessile, inconspicuous; perianth lacking in male flowers and with 12-50 rudimentary, tepaloid lobes or scales in female flowers; stamens (1-)4-10(-100), anthers basifixed, opening by longitudinal slits; ovary (semi)inferior, syncarpous, carpels 2 and free at apex, bi-locular, styles 2, persistent, each with a stigma. Fruit made up of globose septicidal capsules, capsules from whole inflorescence often forming a multiple fruit c. 3cm in diam., armed by hardened styles; exocarp leathery; endocarp bony. Seeds numerous, ovoid, winged, hard, drying orangey-cream.

Notes on delimitation

  • Previously part of the Hamamelidaceae.
  • Treated as a separate family due to both distinct morphological characters and DNA sequences (Ickert-Bond et al. 2005; Ickert-Bond & Wen 2006).
  • Placed in the Saxifragales in a clade with Paeoniaceae, Hamamelidaceae, Cercidiphyllaceae and Daphniphyllaceae (APG2, 2003).

Distribution in the Neotropics

  • México to Nicaragua.
  • Common in Pinus L. and Quercus L. forests.
  • Found at 800-2,100m above sea level.
  • Cool upland regions, moist or wet often mixed forest mostly on mountain sides or along streams.
  • Can be a dominant tree especially in the Coban forests of Guatemala.

Distinguishing characters (always present)

Other important characters

  • Tall and spire-like crowns.
  • Fresh, bright, verdant foliage makes them noticeable in spring. 
  • Stipulate (caducous).

Key differences from similar families

Number of genera

  • One: Liquidambar L. (one species - L. styraciflua L.). 
  • The other genus in Altingiaceae is Altingia Lindl.Nor. which has an East Asian and Malesian distribution.


  • Native

General notes

  • Wind pollinated and dispersed.
  • Self-incompatible.
  • Valuable as a furniture and timber tree.
  • Popular ornamental trees in temperate areas due to large leaves which turn brilliant reds in Autumn. and the sweet smelling spring flowers.
  • Used as an incense and flavouring.
  • The other genus in Altingiaceae is Altingia Lindl.Nor. which has an East Asian and Malesian distribution.

Important literature

APG 2. 2003. An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG II. Bot. J. Linnean Soc. 141: 399-436.

Brummitt, R.K. 2007. In: Heywood, V.H., Brummitt, R.K., Culham, A. and Seberg, O. (eds.). Flowering Plant Families of the World, Pp 162-3. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond.

Endress, P. K. 1993. Hamamelidaceae. In: Kubitzki, K., Fohwer, J. G., and Bittrich, V.(eds.) Families and genera of vascular plants. Volume 2. Flowering plants. Dicotyledons. Pp322-331. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.

Ickert-Bond, S. M., & Wen, J. 2006. Phylogeny and biogeography of Altingiaceae: Evidence from combined analysis of five non-coding chloroplast regions. Mol. Phyl. Evol. 39: 512-528.

Ickert-Bond, S. M. et al. 2005. Comparative infructescence morphology in Liquidambar (Altingiaceae) and its evolutionary significance. American J. Bot. 92: 1234-1255.

Judd, W. S., Campbell, C. S., Kellogg, E. A., Stevens, P. F., Donoghue, M. J. 2008. Plant Systematics: a phylogenetic approach 3rd ed.p.344-6. Sinauer Associates, Massachusetts.

Maas, P.J.M. & Westra, L.Y. Th. 2005.  Neotropical Plant Families. 3rd ed, p.147. A.R.G. Gantner Verlag K.G., Ruggell.

Standley, P. C. & Steyermark, J. A. 1946. Flora of Guatemala. Fieldiana Bot. 24(4): 428-9.

Stevens, P.F. (2008). Angiosperm Phylogeny Website. Version 9 onwards.

Stevenson, D.W. 2004. Hamamelidaceae. Pp.179-180. In: Smith, N., Mori, S.A., Henderson, A., Stevenson, D.W. and Heald, S.V. (eds.). Flowering Plants of the Neotropics. The New York Botanical Garden, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Watson, L. and Dallwitz, M.J. (1992 onwards). The Families of Flowering Plants: Descriptions, Illustrations, Identification, and Information Retrieval. Version 3rd March 2009.

How to cite

Every, J.L.R. (2009). Neotropical Altingiaceae. In: Milliken, W., Klitgård, B. & Baracat, A. (2009 onwards), Neotropikey - Interactive key and information resources for flowering plants of the Neotropics.