Neotropical Celastraceae

Robert H. Archer & Julio Antonio Lombardi

South African National Biodiversity Institute, P. Bag X101, Pretoria, South Africa
Universidade Estadual Paulista Júlio de Mesquita Filho, São Paulo, Brazil.


Lianas, shrubs, or trees, sometimes treelets with slender branches ± scandent; stems with anomalous growth, with phloem present in the fleshy -fruited genera (Salacia L.); lateral brachyblasts sometimes present and tendril-like, sometimes restarting growth after twining, rarely with stems terminating in sharp points; hairs rarely present, simple and generally restricted to inflorescences and flowers, rare on young branches, leaves and fruits; stipules present, minute and usually caducous, sometimes leaving interstipular scar. Leaves opposite or subopposite, alternate, simple; blade margins crenulate, serrate or entire, petiolate or rarely sessile. Inflorescences axillary or on axillary brachyblasts (some may falsely appear to be terminal), thyrsoid, cymose, corymbose or fasciculate; bracts, and sometimes bracteoles, present, small. Flowers actinomorphic, small, bisexual; flower buds spherical to ovate; perianth usually persistent; sepals 4 or 5, imbricate, free, connate at the very base, or rarely connate, not enclosing petals in bud; petals 4 or 5, imbricate, distinct, alternate to sepals, usually yellow-green to white; extrastaminal nectariferous disc present and usually well-developed, annular, pulvinate, patelliform, short-tubular, cupuliform, cylindric, or columnar; androecium usually with 3 stamens, rarely 5 (in Hippocrateoideae), 4 or 5 (in the remaining subfamilies), minute, distinct, reflexed outward after anthesis, the filaments sometimes connate to inner disk wall, the anthers dehiscing by transverse or oblique slits; gynoecium syncarpous, the ovary superior, often triangular in shape, the carpels usually 3, 4 or 5, the locules equal to the number of carpels, style short, awl-shaped, sometimes absent, the stigmas usually 3 entire, bilobed, or obscure; placentation axillary or subapical, the 1-10 ovules per locule, patent or somewhat pendulous. Fruits berries, or woody capsules, the capsules commonly 3-lobed, or a schizocarp with 3 strongly divergent dehiscent mericarps on swollen receptacle, or samara with single apical wing, 3-5 lateral wings or single surrounding wing; seeds usually 3-6 (in berries), 6 to ± 30 (in capsules), often 3-sided (in berries), sometimes winged at base (in capsules), wing sometimes vestigial and testa spongy, or with sarcotesta and embedded in mucilaginous pulp (in berries) exarrilate or with membraneous or fleshy, basal to completely enveloping seed; endosperm absent or present.

Notes on delimitation

Hippocrateaceae is usually included in Celastraceae as two distinct subfamilies in most recent classifications, particularly the APG III. The Celastroideae comprise most additional genera in the Neotropics:

  • Celastroideae (trees, shrubs, simple capsule -fruited species).
  • Cassinoideae (trees, drupe -fruited species).
  • Hippocrateoideae (mostly lianas, dry-fruited species).
  • Salacioideae (mostly lianas, fleshy -fruited species).
  • Goupia (Goupiaceae) and Perrottetia (Dipentodontaceae) are placed in the order Malpighiales following molecular analysis. Parnassia and Lepuropetalon are treated in the family Parnassiaceae.

Distribution in the Neotropics

  • Acanthothamnus Brandegee - Endemic with 1 species, Central Mexico.
  • Anthodon Ruiz & Pav. - Endemic Panama to SE Brazil.
  • Celastrus L.- Mostly Northern hemisphere in Mexico to Bolivia, Brazil and West Indies
  • Cheiloclinium Miers - Endemic Mesoamerica to SE Brazil.
  • Crossopetalum P.Browne  - Endemic Florida, West Indies to Venezuela.
  • Cuervea Triana ex Miers - Endemic Mesoamerica to SE Brazil, Caribbean islands (St Vincent, Cuba, and Jamaica).
  • Euonymus L. - Mostly Northern hemisphere but with a few in Mesoamerica.
  • Elachyptera A.C.Sm. - Mesoamerica to SE Brazil.
  • Elaeodendron Jacq. - Mostly southern hemisphere with 1 (or possibly 2) species in Mesoamerica, Caribbean islands.
  • Fraunhofera Mart. - Endemic, in NE Brazil.
  • Hippocratea L. - Florida to N Argentina, and Caribbean islands.
  • Hylenaea Miers - Endemic Costa Rica to Amazon basin.
  • Goniodiscus Kuhlm. - Endemic, 1 species in Maués, Amazonas, Brazil.
  • Gyminda Sarg. - Endemic, W. Cuba, Mexico to Panama and Venezuela.
  • Haydenia M.P.Simmons - Endemic, 3 species; Veracruz, Mexico to Bolivia and Amazonian Brazil.
  • Maytenus Molina - Near-endemic and widespread in Neotropics; largest group with more than 100 species.
  • Peritassa Miers - Endemic Costa Rica to Paraguay.
  • Plenckia Reissek - Endemic
  • Prionostemma Miers - Endemic as a monotypic genus; Mesoamerica to NE Brazil and Bolivia.
  • Pristimera Miers - México to N Argentina.
  • Quetzalia Lundell - Endemic, Mesoamerica.
  • Salacia L. - México to Paraguay, and Cuba.
  • Schaefferia Jacq. - Endemic, South America, West Indies.
  • Semialarium N.Hallé - Endemic Mexico to SE Brazil.
  • Tetrasiphon Urb. - Endemic, Jamaica.
  • Tontelea Miers - Endemic Mesoamerica to Paraguay.
  • Wimmeria Schltdl & Cham. - Endemic Mexico to Panama.
  • Zinowiewia Turcz. - Endemic with Mexico to Bolivia, and Venezuela.

Rzedowskia, Canotia, and Mortonia, are all small shrubby Celastraceous species with small or scaly leaves only that occur as far south as Central Mexico, thus just outside the Neotropics area and not here included.

Distinguishing characters (always present)

  • Leaves simple.
  • Axillary buds glabrous.
  • Stipules present and minute, but usually caduceous, leaving a stipular scar.
  • Nectariferous disc present.

Other important characters

  • Fruit particularly varied, loculicidally and/or septicidally capsular or baccate, drupaceous, samaroid or with seed often arillate or sometimes winged.
  • Twining lianas with leaves opposite (Hippocrateoideae and Salacioideae).
  • Leaves glabrous, rarely scabrous.
  • Stamens and carpels 3 (Hippocrateoideae and Salacioideae) 4 or 5 in Celastroideae and Cassinoideae.
  • Extrastaminal nectariferous disc (Hippocrateoideae and Salacioideae), intrastaminal in Celastroideae and Cassinoideae).
  • Leaves often crenate/serrate.

Key differences from similar families

Number of genera

100 genera worldwide.

27 genera native in the Neotropics (see Distribution in the Neotropics above).

Useful tips for generic identification

Notable genera and distinguishing features

  • Hippocratea - young branches, inflorescences, pedicels, sepals and petals pilose, petals barbelate inside in the apex, fruit a dehiscent schizocarp.
  • Salacia - young branches, inflorescences and pedicels rarely puberulous, petals glabrous, fruit a berry.
  • Maytenus- rather indistinguishable with small flowers and loculicidally dehiscent capsule, frequently opening in 2 valves, with 1 or 2 arillate seeds.


  • All genera in the Neotropics are native.

Important literature

Coughenour, J. M., Simmons, M. P., Lombardi, J. A., Yakobson, K., & Archer, R. H. 2011. Phylogeny of Celastraceae subfamily Hippocrateoideae inferred from morphological characters and nuclear and plastid loci. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 59:   320-330.

Görts-van Rijn, A. R. A. & A. M. W. Mennega. 1994. Hippocrateaceae. Fl. Guianas, Ser. A, Phanerogams, 16: 3-81.

Hallé, N. 1962. Monographie des Hippocratéacées d'Afrique occidentale. Mém. Inst. Franç. Afrique Noire 64: 1-246.

Hallé, N. 1983. Révision des Hippocrateae (Celastraceae): 3. Fruits, graines et structures placentaires. Bull. Mus. Natl. Hist. Nat., B, Adansonia 5: 11-25.

Hedin, J. P. T. 1999. Systematic studies of the Neotropical species of Salacia L. (Hippocrateaceae) and its relatives. Thesis, Washington University, Saint Louis.

Lombardi, J. A. & A. C. M. Lara. 2003 [2004]. Hippocrateaceae. Pp. 109-122 in M. G. L. Wanderley, G. J. Shepherd, T. S. Melhem, A. M. Giulietti & M. Kirizawa (eds.), Flora Fanerogâmica do Estado de São Paulo 3. FAPESP/RiMa, São Paulo.

Lombardi, J. A. 2001. Hippocrateaceae. Flora del Paraguay 36: 1-36.

McKenna, M. J., Simmons, M. P., Bacon, C. D., & Lombardi, J. A. 2011. Delimitation of the Segregate Genera of Maytenus s. l. (Celastraceae) Based on Morphological and Molecular Characters. Systematic Botany 36: 922-932.

Mennega, A. M. W. 1997. Wood anatomy of the Hippocrateoideae (Celastraceae). IAWA J. 18: 331-368.

Miers, J. 1872. On the Hippocrateaceae of South America. Trans. Linn. Soc. London 28: 319-432.

Mory, B. 2001. Notes on Crossopetamum, Myginda and Gyminda (Celastraceae) from Cuba. Wildenowia 31: 129-135.

Mory, B. 2010. Flora de la República de Cuba: Celastraceae, Serie A, Plantas Vasculares Fasc. 16" 1-80.

Peyritch, J. 1878. Hippocrateaceae. Pp. 125-164 in C. F. P. Martius & A. G. Eichler (eds.), Flora brasiliensis 11(1). Frid. Fleischer. Lipsiae.

Simmons, M. P. 2004. Celastraceae. Pp. 29-64 in K. Kubitzki (ed.), The families and genera of vascular plants 6. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.

Smith, A. C. 1940. The American species of Hippocrateaceae. Brittonia 3: 341-555.

How to cite

Archer, R.H. & Lombardi, J.A. (2013). Neotropical Celastraceae. In: Milliken, W., Klitgård, B. & Baracat, A. (2009 onwards), Neotropikey - Interactive key and information resources for flowering plants of the Neotropics.