Neotropical Lecythidaceae

Daniela Zappi

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK. 


Trees or shrubs, sometimes poorly branched, very rarely woody lianas, exudate absent, all parts smelling of linseed oil, bark fibrous. Stipules absent or inconspicuous. Leaves alternate, sometimes condensed at the apex of the branch and then looking verticillate, petiolate, often glabrous, venation pinnate, secondary and tertiary venation often parallel, blades entire, margin serrate to crenate, often appearing entire. Inflorescences generally terminal, sometimes cauliflorous or ramiflorous, racemose or paniculate, rarely reduced to a fascicle, flowers very rarely solitary. Flowers hermaphrodite, epigynous, calyx (2-)4-6(-12)-merous, lobes free or fused, corolla (4-)5-8(-18)-merous (corolla substituted by staminodes in Asteranthos Desf.), lobes fused at base or free, white, cream, orange, dull-red, pink, lilac or pale yellow; stamens (10-)100+, generally adnate at base forming a ring and partially fused to the corolla, or numerous staminodes fused into a cap-like structure that covers the style and stigma, anthers dehiscing longitudinally or by pores; ovary inferior, (2-)4-6-locular and with axile, pendulous or erect placentation, many-ovuled, style present, generally stout. Fruit a woody circumcissile capsule (pyxidium) or indehiscent capsule, sometimes with fleshy, smelly pulp, many-seeded; seeds generally large, often winged, sometimes with woody testa (Bertholletia Bonpl. ), embryo straight, cotyledons sometimes absent.

Notes on delimitation

Distribution in the Neotropics

  • Represented in the Neotropics by 11 genera with around 180 species.
  • Lecythidaceae has its main distribution centered within tropical, humid forests, hardly reaching Argentina and Paraguay and being absent from Chile.
  • In the Caribbean only Grias L. has been recorded in nature.

Distinguishing characters (always present)

  • Woody plants with fibrous bark and linseed smell.
  • Flowers with numerous stamens.
  • Ovary inferior.
  • Fruits large, woody, 2-many-seeded.

Other important characters

  • Leaves crenate, often microscopically so.
  • Flowers with numerous stamens basally fused into a ring or staminodes forming a  cap-like structure covering the stigma.
  • Fruit often a woody circumcissile capsule called a pyxidium.

Key differences from similar families

Number of genera

  • Allantoma Miers - Amazonian Venezuela and Brazil, one species, A. lineata Miers
  • Asteranthos Desf. - Eastern Colombia, Southwestern Venezuela and Northwestern Brazil (upper Rio Negro basin), one species, A. brasiliensis Desf.
  • Bertholletia  Bonpl. - Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil to the Guianas, one species, B. excelsa Humb. & Bonpl. (Brazil nut).
  • Cariniana Casar. - Colombia and Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil, around 9 species.
  • Corythophora R.Knuth - Brazil and the Guianas, 4 species.
  • Couratari Aubl. - Costa Rica to French Guiana, Northern Bolivia and Brazil, 19 species.
  • Couroupita Aubl. - Nicaragua to the Guianas, Peru and Brazil, 3 species.
  • Eschweilera Mart. ex DC. - Trinidad-Tobago, Honduras to French Guiana, Bolivia and Brazil, the largest genus in the family, with over 90 described species.
  • Grias L. - Jamaica, Belize to Peru, around 6 species.
  • Gustavia L. - Costa Rica to French Guiana, Northern Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil, over 40 species.
  • Lecythis S.A.Mori - Costa Rica to French Guiana, Peru and Brazil, 26 species.

Useful tips for generic identification

1. Actinomorphic-flowered genera, woody or fibrous berries, elongated woody capsule or winged capsules ... 2
1. Zygomorphic-flowered genera, rounded or elongated fruits, dehiscent or not ... 5

2. With dehiscent fruits ... 3
2. With indehiscent fuits ... 4

3. Lacking petals, capsule with wing formed by expanded calyx... Asteranthos
3. Woody elongated pixidium with winged seeds, petals 6 ... Cariniana
3. Woody elongated pixidium, seeds not winged, petals 5 ... Allantoma

4. Fruit rounded woody berry, flowers large with a staminal ring, petals 6-8(-18) ... Gustavia
4. Fruit oblong fibrous or woody berry, petals 4 ... Grias

5. With dehiscent fruits ... 6
5. With indehiscent fruits ... 7

6. Fruit elongated pixidium, seeds winged, staminal cap fully coiled ... Couratari
6. Fruit rounded to disk-shaped pixidium with few seeds; staminal cap fully coiled ... Eschweilera
6. Large rounded pixidium; staminal cap not coiled ... Lecythis

7. Inflorescences terminal, flowers pale yellow; rounded fruit with hard, ridged large seeds inside ... Bertholletia
7. Inflorescences cauliflorous, to 1 m long, flowers very showy; large indehiscent fruit with small seeds immersed in smelly pulp ... Couroupita

Notable genera and distinguishing features

See above


See above

General notes

  • Bertholletia excelsa is a source of income for local populations in Amazonian Brazil and Bolivia (Brazil-nut, castanha-do-Pará).
  • Couroupita guianensis Aubl., the cannon-ball tree, is often used as a street-tree in Rio de Janeiro, despite the weight of its fruits that threaten parked vehicles.
  • Many species are good timber sources.

Important literature

APG II, 2003. An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG II. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 141(4): 399-436.

Gentry, A.H. 1996. A field guide to the families and genera of Woody Plants of Northwest South America (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru). The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

Mori, S.A. & Prance, G.T. 1990. Lecythidaceae part II: The zygomorphic flowered New World genera. Flora Neotropica Monograph 21(2): 1-376.

Mori, S. & Prance, G.T. The Lecythidaceae Pages, at (visited 12/2008).

Prance, G.T. & Mori, S.A. 1979. Lecythidaceae part I: The actinomorphic flowered New World genera. Flora Neotropica Monograph 21(1): 1-270.

Souza, V.C. & Lorenzi, H. 2005. Botânica Sistemática: guia ilustrativo para identificação das famílias de Angiospermas da flora brasileira, baseado em APG II. Nova Odessa, Brazil: Instituto Plantarum.

How to cite

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