Neotropical Marcgraviaceae

Stefan Dressler

Senckenberg, Research Institute, Frankfurt am Mains, Germany. 


Terrestrial, hemiepiphytic or epiphytic lianas or shrubs, rarely small trees. Roots sometimes adventitious. Hypophyllous glands on the lower surface of the leaf blade, raphide cells and variously shaped sclereids frequent. Leaves simple, alternate, exstipulate, glabrous, margins entire or minutely crenate. Inflorescences terminal, racemose, sometimes pseudo-umbels or pseudo-spikes, erect or pendulous. Bracts transformed into variously shaped nectaries. Flowers bisexual, actinomorphic, hypogynous, 2-bracteolate, the bracteoles sepaloid or deltoid, sometimes lacking. Sepals 4-5, unequal, free or nearly so, imbricate, persistent. Petals 3-5, imbricate, free or connate. Stamens 3 to many; filaments free or basally connate, uniseriate; anthers basifixed or nearly so, dithecal, tetrasporangiate, introrse, longitudinally dehiscent. Ovary superior, completely or incompletely 2-20-locular; ovules numerous. Fruits subglobose, apiculate with a persistent style and stigma, capsular, loculicidally and septifragously dehiscent from the base (sometimes appearing berry -like), pulpy inside. Seeds hemispherical to reniform, few to numerous with a shiny reticulate testa.

Notes on delimitation

Two subfamilies:

Distribution in the Neotropics

  • Marcgravia (ca. 65 spp.): S Mexico, Mesoamerica, South America, Antilles.
  • Marcgraviastrum (15 spp.): S Nicaragua to Peru, Bolivia plus 2 spp. in E Brazil.
  • Norantea (2 spp.): Caribbean and Amazonian basin of NE South America.
  • Ruyschia Jacq. (9 spp.): Mesoamerica, N Andes, Lesser Antilles.
  • Sarcopera (ca. 10 spp.): Honduras to N Bolivia, Guyayana Highlands.
  • Schwartzia Vell. (ca. 15 spp.): Costa Rica through the Andes south to Bolivia, in the Caribbean basin and 1 sp. in E Brazil.
  • Souroubea (19 spp.): Mexico to Bolivia (absent from the Antilles).
  • The Marcgraviaceae are endemic to the Neotropics.  Species range from Southern Mexico to Northern Bolivia and Eastern Brazil including the Antillean arc. Marcgraviastrum (Wittm. ex Szyszyl.) de Roon & S.Dressler, Souroubea Aubl., Norantea Aubl. and Sarcopera Bedell are missing in the Antilles (although Norantea guianensis Aubl. is rarely cultivated as an ornamental).
  • Taxa are mostly found in primary humid tropical lowland forests or montane rain or cloud forests.

Distinguishing characters (always present)

Other important characters

  • Usually climbing.
  • Often hemiepiphytic.
  • Youngest leaf enclosing the terminal bud.
  • Young growth often reddish coloured by anthocyanins.
  • Flowers with variously connate petals.
  • Stamens 3 or 5 or many.

Number of genera

Seven genera (see "Distribution in the Neotropics").

Useful tips for generic identification

Key to genera of the Neotropical Marcgraviaceae 

1. Inflorescence umbellate or subumbellate ... 2
1. Inflorescence spicate or racemose ... 3

2. Inflorescence completely fertile; sepals and petals 5; petals free or variously connate; leaves spirally arranged ... Marcgraviastrum
2. Inflorescence partly sterile (central flowers aborted with only the bracteal nectaries developed); sepals and petals 4; petals calyptrately connate; leaves distichously arranged ... Marcgravia

3. Inflorescence spicate; nectaries attached to the rachis next to the flowers ... Sarcopera
3. Inflorescence racemose; nectaries variously attached to the pedicel... 4

4. Stamens 3-5, rarely 4 or 6-8; nectaries attached to the pedicel at the base of the calyx, rarely at some distance ... 5
4. Stamens (5-)12-35(-80); nectaries attached to the pedicel at various distances from the calyx, but never at its base ... 6

5. Ovary 2-locular; nectaries gibbose or somewhat leaf-like, solid or nearly so ... Ruyschia
5. Ovary 3-5-locular; nectaries tubular, hollow, often auriculate... Souroubea

6. Inflorescence an elongated raceme, 25-60(-85) cm; pedicels 2-5(-7) mm; nectaries adnate above the middle of the pedicel, never attached at the base ... Norantea
6. Inflorescence a short raceme, 4-25(-35) cm; pedicels (20-)30-70 mm; nectaries adnate below the middle of the pedicel, rarely at the base ... Schwartzia

Notable genera and distinguishing features


  • Native and endemic to the Neotropics, Norantea guianensis sometimes cultivated in countries outside its range (e.g. Jamaica, Costa Rica, Trinidad).

General notes

  • The elaborate inflorescences with the variously shaped bracteal “nectary -containers” are frequented by a wide range of visitors (insects, lizards, birds, bats, non-flying mammals). Different pollination syndromes are exemplified in the various taxa. Whereas Ruyschia and Souroubea seem predominantly insect-pollinated (flies?, butterflies, hawk-moths?), Norantea, Sarcopera and Schwartzia brasiliensis (Choisy) Bedell ex Gir.-Cañas are probably best adapted to bird-pollination, especially by perching birds. Sarcopera sessiliflora (Triana & Planch.) Bedell was the first plant where pollen transmission by birds' feet was described. Most Schwartzia, Marcgraviastrum and Marcgravia spp. seem to be primarily bat-pollinated, but the ornithophilous syndrome seems to occur as well. This is a coarse generalisation and surprisingly many Marcgraviaceae are probably autogamous as well (and even cleistogamous, as experimentally proven in Marcgravia coriacea Vahl).
  • The brightly coloured pulp with the small seeds exposed when the capsules split open suggest endozoochorous dispersal.
  • Apart from occasional horticultural use in the tropics the family has no significant economic value.

Important literature

Bedell, H.G. 1985. A generic revision of Marcgraviaceae I. The Norantea complex. Ph.D. Dissertation (ined.), Univ. Maryland, College Park, MD.

Bedell, H.G. 1989. Marcgraviaceae. In: Howard, R.A. (ed.). Flora of the Lesser Antilles 5: 300-310.

Dressler, S. 2000. Marcgraviaceae. In: Flora de República de Cuba, Ser. A, Fasc. 5: 1-14.

Dressler, S. 2001. Marcgraviaceae. In: Steyermark, J.A., P.E. Berry, K. Yatskievych & B.K. Holst (eds.), Flora of the Venezuelan Guayana vol 6, pp. 248-260.  Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis.

Dressler, S. 2004. Marcgraviaceae. In: Kubitzki, K. (ed.). The Families and Genera of Vascular Plants. vol. 6, pp. 258-265. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.

Dressler, S. 2004. Marcgraviaceae, pp. 236-238. In: Smith, N.P., Heald, S.V., Henderson, A., Mori, S.A. & Stevenson, D.W. (eds.). Flowering Plants of the Neotropics. Princeton University Press/New York Botanical Garden Press.

Giraldo-Cañas, D. 2002. Los géneros Marcgraviastrum y Norantea (Marcgraviaceae) en Brasil. Revista Acad. Colomb. Ci. Exact. 26: 469-476.

Giraldo-Cañas, D. 2003. Revisíon de las especies colombianas del género Schwartzia (Marcgraviaceae). Caldasia 25: 1-21.

Giraldo-Cañas, D. 2005. Validation of a New Species of Schwartzia (Marcgraviaceae) and Synopsis of the genus for Ecuador. Novon 15: 123-127.

Giraldo-Cañas, D. & Fiaschi, P. 2005. Las Marcgraviaceae (Ericales) de Brasil: Las especies del complejo Norantea. Caldasia 27(2): 173-194.

Giraldo-Cañas, D. 2006. Lectotipificación para Schwartzia magnifica (complejo Norantea, Marcgraviaceae) y Revisión del género para Bolivia y Perú. Caldasia 28(2): 275-283.

Hammel, B.E. 2007. Marcgraviaceae. In: Hammel, B.E. et al. (eds.). Manual de Plantas de Costa Rica vol 6, pp. 374-391. Missouri Botanical Garden, St Louis.

Lens, F., Dressler, S., Jansen, S., van Evelghem, L. & Smets, E. 2005. Relationships within balsaminoid Ericales: a wood anatomical approach. American Journal of Botany 92(6): 941-953.

Lens, F., Dressler, S., Vinckier, S., Janssens, S., Dessein, S., Van Evelghem, L. & Smets, E. 2005. Palynological variation in balsaminoid Ericales. I. Marcgraviaceae. Ann. Bot. 96: 1047-1060.

Roon, A.C. de 1967. Foliar sclereids in the Marcgraviaceae. Acta Bot. Neerl. 15: 585-623.

Roon, A.C. de 1970. Flora of Panama, Fam. 121. Marcgraviaceae. Ann. Missouri Bot. Gart. 57: 29-50.

Roon, A.C. de 1975. Contributions towards a monograph of the Marcgraviaceae. Thesis. Utrecht.

Utley, J.F. 1976. A synopsis of the Mexican Marcgraviaceae. Brenesia 9: 51-59.

Utley, J.F. 2001. Marcgraviaceae. In: Stevens, D.W., C. Ulloa U., A. Pool & O.M. Montiel (eds.), Flora de Nicaragua vol 2, pp. 1335-1338. Missouri Botanical Garden, St Louis.

Images from La Selva Digital Flora Project

How to cite

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

Click images to enlarge

Inflorescence structures: A = fertile flower; B = nectary; C= sterile flower with nectary fused © Stefan Dressler, Senckenberg Research Institute, Frankfurt. 

Marcgravia brownei in bud, Costa Rica © Marco Tschapka, Ulm University.

Marcgravia coriacea © Guenter Gerlach, Munich Botanical Garden.

Marcgravia nervosa inflorescence visited by bat Hylonycteris underwoodii, Costa Rica © Marco Tschapka, Ulm University.

Inflorescences of Marcgravia pedunculosa (left) and Marcgravia coriacea (right), French Guyana © Scott Mori, New York Botanical Garden.

Heterophylly in Marcgravia rectiflora, Cuba © Meike Piepenbring, University of Frankfurt.

Marcgravia stonei, Mexico © K.Mehltreter, Instituto de Ecologia, Veracruz.

Marcgraviastrum mixtum in fruit, Ecuador © Ulf Soltau.

Marcgraviastrum subsessile shortly before flowering, Panama © Ralph Mangelsdorff, University Frankfurt.

Norantea goyasensis in flower, Bolivia © Guenter Gerlach, Munich Botanical Garden.

Norantea goyasensis in flower, Bolivia © Guenter Gerlach, Munich Botanical Garden.

Norantea guianensis, Colombia © Lauritz Holm-Nielsen, Aarhus University.

Sarcopera sessiliflora, young shoot, Costa Rica © Reinaldo Aguilar, Flora Digital de La Selva.

Sarcopera sessiliflora, habit, Costa Rica © Reinaldo Aguilar, Flora Digital de La Selva.

Sarcopera sessiliflora, part of inflorescence in bud, Costa Rica © Reinaldo Aguilar, Flora Digital de La Selva.

Sarcopera sessiliflora, part of inflorescence in flower, Costa Rica © Reinaldo Aguilar, Flora Digital de La Selva.

Sarcopera sessiliflora, part of inflorescence in bud, Costa Rica © Barry Hammel, Missouri Botanical Garden.

Schwartzia weddelliana in flower, Bolivia © Roberto Vásquez, Bolivia.

Souroubea guianensis, fruit with seeds, French Guyana © Scott Mori, New York Botanical Garden.

Souroubea guianensis ssp. cylindrica, part of inflorescence, Venezuela © Günter Gerlach, Munich Botanical Garden.

Souroubea sympetala in flower, Panama © Ralph Mangelsdorff, University Frankfurt.

Souroubea sympetala in flower, Panama © Meike Piepenbring, University of Frankfurt.

Souroubea venosa, habit, Panama © Ralph Mangelsdorff, University Frankfurt.

Souroubea venosa, part of inflorescence, Panama © Ralph Mangelsdorff, University Frankfurt.