Neotropical Muntingiaceae

Sue Frisby

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, U.K.


Habit: shrubs or small to medium trees; indumentum of simple, stellate, branched and glandular trichomes.  Leaves alternate, simple, distichous, petiolate, 3-5-nerved from the base or pinnately veined, margins shallowly toothed to serrate or dentate, discolourous; stipules persistent, filiform and solitary (Muntingia), foliaceous and in dimorphic pairs - one large peltate-serrate stipule and one filiform (Dicraspidia) or unknown (Neotessmannia).  Inflorescences supra-axillary, solitary or in few-flowered clusters.  Flowers pedicellate, actinomorphic, bisexual, 2-4 cm in diam.; sepals 4-5, basally connate or free, valvate, with long filiform appendages (Dicraspidia); petals 5, free, imbricate, shortly clawed, pink, white or yellow; stamens numerous and free, nectar-secreting disc present (Muntingia), anthers longitudinally dehiscent or via apical pores or slits; ovary inferior, 5-multi-locular, style short, basally thickened, apically claviform or lobed. Fruits berry-like, fleshy and indehiscent. Seeds 25-100, small, endospermic and embedded in pulp.

Notes on delimitation

  • Recent phylogenetic and taxonomic analyses have led to the circumscription of the family Muntingiaceae recognised within the Malvales clade (Stevens 2001, onwards). The three genera in Muntingiaceae have variously been placed in the Elaeocarpaceae, Flacourtiaceae, and Tiliaceae.  This situation is complicated by the lack of data especially for Neotessmannia, known only from one location in Eastern Peru, where fruiting material has yet to be collected (Bayer et al. 1998, 1999; Bayer 2003).

Distribution in the Neotropics

A neotropical family of three monotypic genera.

  • Dicraspidia Standl.:  1 species only - D. donnell-smithii Standl., found from southern Central America to northern Colombia.
  • Muntingia L.:  1 species only - M. calabura L., distribution extending from Mexico and the West Indies to the Brazilian Amazon and Bolivia; now frequently cultivated in Africa and Asia as an ornamental and for its edible fruits. One of the few tree species known from both sides of the Andes.
  • Neotessmannia Burret:  1 species only - N. uniflora Burret, a very rare tree known only from the type collection from swamp forest in Amazonian Peru.

Distinguishing characters (always present)

  • Dimorphic stipule -like structures which origin is discussed (Bayer 2003, Stevens 2002 and onwards).
  • Lack of mucilage cavities.
  • Stellate pubescence present.
  • Pendulous multi-ovulate palcentae (fruits are unknown in Neotessmannia).
  • Petals oblong-obovate and with irregular margins.
  • Leaves palmately veined, with cordate, asymmetric base, and margins serrate.

Other important characters

Key differences from similar families

The Muntigiaceae could potentially be confused with members of the family Malvaceae subfamily Tilioideae, but differ from them in the following characters:

  • Absence of mucilage cavaties or canals in stem and leaf anatomy.
  • The combined occurrence of long, simple bristles, stellate hairs, and glandular trichomes with globular heads, is unknown in subfamily Tilioideae.
  • The stipule -dimorphism shown in Muntingia and Dicraspidia is unknown in subfamily Tilioideae.
  • The supra-axillary position of the inflorescences.
  • The occurrence of inferior ovary, which is superior in subfamily Tilioideae.

Useful tips for generic identification

Key to Neotropical genera of Muntingiaceae

1. Persistent, dimorphic peltate-serrate and filiform stipules … Dicraspidia
1. Persistent or caducous, monomorphic filiform  stipules … 2.


2. Persistent stipules, petals white … Muntingia
2. Caducous stipules, petals yellow … Neotessmannia


  • Native.

General notes

  • Muntingia calabura L. is ecologically important as a pioneer species in mined areas, and in marginal and open forests. It is evergreen, grows to 12 m and is most common from sea level to c. 1000 m altitude.
  • The species is introduced into South East Asia and has become naturalised in other parts of the tropics. It is tolerant of most extreme conditions, although not to salt.
  • Muntingia is often cultivated and is used locally in the Neotropics as a provider of edible fruits and useful bark fibres.  The fruits are made into jam, and the leaves are used for making tea.
  • Muntingia wood is light weight and durable and used for carpentry. In Brazil trees are often planted along river banks, where the fruits falling into the water are useful fish attractants. 
  • Mungingia provides valuable fuel wood as it ignites quickly, burns with intense heat and makes little smoke.
  • Muntingia bark yields a very strong, soft, fibre, used in making twine and ropes. Medicinally the flowers are traditionally used as an antiseptic.
  • Muntingia is known as 'Capulin' in Guatemala, 'Jam tree' in Sri Lanka and 'Jamaican Cherry' amongst many other vernacular names.

Important literature

Bayer, C., Chase, M.W. & Fay, M.F. 1998. Muntingiaceae, a new family of dicotyledons with malvalean affinities. Taxon 47:37-42.

Burret, M. 1924. Neotessmannia, eine neue Tiliaceen-Gattung. Notizbl. Bot. Gart. Berlin-Dahlem 9: 125-127.

Maas, P.J.M. & Westra, L.Y. Th. 2005. Neotropical Plant Families. A.R.G. Gantner Verlag K.G.: 229.

Standley, P.C. 1929. Studies of American Plants. Publications of the Field Museum of Natural History Botanical Series 4 (8): 227.

Watson, L., and Dallwitz, M.J. 1992 onwards. The families of flowering plants: descriptions, illustrations, identification, and information retrieval. Version: 19th December 2012.

Bayer, C. 2003.  Muntingiaceae. In: K. Kubitzki, & C. Bayer (eds). The Families and Genera of Vascular Plants vol. V, pp. 315-319. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.

Stevens, P. F. (2001 onwards). Angiosperm Phylogeny Website. Version 9, June 2008 (visited 6th Feb.2013).

How to cite

Frisby, S. (2014). Neotropical Muntingiaceae. In: Milliken, W., Klitgård, B. & Baracat, A. (2009 onwards), Neotropikey - interactive key and information resources for flowering plants of the Neotropics.