Neotropical Hernandiaceae

Denise Sasaki

Secretaria do Meio Ambiente do Estado de São Paulo, Brazil. 


Trees, shrubs or vines, aromatic, often evergreen. Leaves simple, alternate, entire or palmatifid, pinnately or palmately veined, margins entire, often long-petiolate, stipules absent, sometimes with cystoliths in leaves and axis (Gyrocarpus, Sparattanthelium). Inflorescences axillary or terminal, paniculate, cymose or corymbose; bracteoles absent (Gyrocarpus, Sparattanthelium) or present (Hernandia). Flowers hermaphrodite (Gyrocarpus, Sparattanthelium) or unisexual (Hernandia), actinomorphic or zygomorphic; tepals 4-10(-12) in 1 whorl (Gyrocarpus, Sparattanthelium) or 2 whorls (Hernandia), sepaloid, free or basally connate, estivation imbricate or valvate; stamens 3-5(-7) in 1 whorl, filaments with a 1-2 nectariferous glands, anthers basifixed, dehiscing via longitudinal valves; ovary inferior, carpel 1, placentation apical, ovule 1; style 1, short or elongated; stigma terminal. Fruits nucular, sometimes subtended by bracteoles (Hernandia), or samaroid (Gyrocarpus), dry; seed 1, endosperm absent.

Notes on delimitation

  • The Hernandiaceae is placed in the order Laurales by Cronquist (1988). Molecular studies support its affinity with the Lauraceae and Monimiaceae (Stevens 2008).

Distribution in the Neotropics

  • Gyrocarpus Jacq.: 1 species widespread in the Neotropics and 1 species restricted to Central America.
  • Hernandia L.: Pantropical.
  • Sparattanthelium Mart.: Tropical America.

Distinguishing characters (always present)

Other important characters

  • Often long-petiolate (shorter in Sparattanthelium).
  • Cystoliths often present (Gyrocarpus, Sparattanthelium).
  • Flowers unisexual or bisexual.
  • Fruits dry, nucular or samaroid.

Key differences from similar families

Number of genera

  • Three Neotropical genera.

Useful tips for generic identification

  • Gyrocarpus: trees, inflorescences axillary, flowers unisexual or bisexual (plants polygamous), tepals 4-8, stamens 4-5 with dorsal appendages, fruits with two large wings (samaroid).
  • Hernandia: trees, inflorescences terminal, flowers unisexual, tepals 6-10(-12), male flowers with 3-5 stamens with basal appendages, fruits subtended by bracteoles or a cupule formed by them (nucular).
  • Sparattanthelium: shrubs or lianas with recurving hooks, inflorescences axillary, flowers bisexual, tepals 4-5(-8), stamens 4-5(-7) without appendages, fruits without wings and not subtended by bracteoles (nucular).


  • Native.

General notes

  • The family is divided in two subfamilies: Gyrocarpoideae (Gyrocarpus and Sparattanthelium) and Hernandioideae (Hernandia and the non-Neotropical genera Illgera and Hazomalania).
  • Instead of tepals, the perianth parts are consider to be sepals and petals or only sepals by different authors.

Important literature

Gentry, A.H. 1996. A Field Guide to the Families and Genera of Woody Plants of Northwest South America (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru) with Supplementary Notes on Herbaceous Taxa, pp. 456-458. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago and London.

Heywood, V.H. 2007. Hernandiaceae. In: Heywood, V.H., Brummit, R.K., Culham, A. & Seberg, O. (eds.). Flowering Plant Families of the World,  p. 166. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Kubitzki, K. 1969. Monographie der Hernandiaceen. Bot. Jahrb. Syst. 89: 78-205.

Kubitzki, K. 1993. Hernandiaceae. In: K. Kubiztki, J.G. Rohwer & V. Bittrich (eds). The Families and Genera of Vascular Plants, Vol. II, pp. 334-38. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York.

Kubitzki, K. 2004. Hernandiaceae. In: N. Smith, S.A. Mori, A. Henderson, D.W. Stevenson & S.V. Heald (eds). Flowering Plants of the Neotropics, pp. 334-337. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Miller, J.S. & Berry, P.E. 1999. Hernandiaceae. In: P.E. Berry, K. Yatskievych & B.K. Holst (eds). Flora of the Venezuelan Guyana, Vol. 2, Eriocaulaceae - Hernandiaceae, pp: 592-593. Missouri Botanical Garden Press, St. Louis.

Pennington, T.D., Reynel, C. & Daza, A. 2004. Illustrated guide to the trees of Peru, pp. 198-199. David Hunt, Sherborne. 

Stevens, P.F. 2008. Angiosperm Phylogeny Website, version 9.

How to cite

Sasaki, D. (2009). Neotropical Hernandiaceae. In: Milliken, W., Klitgård, B. & Baracat, A. (2009 onwards), Neotropikey - Interactive key and information resources for flowering plants of the Neotropics.