Neotropical Melanthiaceae

Marta Camargo de Assis* and Julie Henriette Antoinette Dutilh**

* Embrapa Meio Ambiente, SP, Brazil.

** Instituto de Biologia, Unicamp, Campinas, SP, Brazil.


Habit: perennial erect herbs; roots mainly rhizomes, rarely tubers or corms; stem simple, stout to slender, with foliaceous or scaly leaves, sometimes basally thickened, sometimes with fibrous leaf sheaths at the base.  Leaves basally cauline, alternate, usually spiral or distichous; lamina entire, setaceous to broadly elliptical or spathulate, up to 50 cm long, deciduous or evergreen, usually sessile, rarely petiolate, sometimes sheathing.  Inflorescences often racemes, sometimes panicles, spikes or umbel -like.  Flowers mainly hermaphroditic, less commonly dioecious or poly-gamonoecious; usually hypogynous; bracteate or ebracteate; perianth trimerous, actinomorphic, funnel-shaped, cup-shaped to opening flat to more open; tepals 3 + 3, free to joined, up to 20 mm long, the two whorls equal, petaloid, white, green, yellow or dark purple-brown, persistent, marcescent or caducous; nectaries perigonal; stamens 3 + 3, free or inserted at the tepal base, filaments filiform to subulate, anthers dorsifixed or basifixed, dehiscing with slits or valves, extrorse; ovary 3-carpellate, apocarpous to syncarpous; styles 1 or 3 free or partially joined, stigmas 1 or 3 capitate, ovules bitemic, 2-numerous each carpel, placentation axileFruits septicidal, loculicidal or ventricidal, dehiscent capsules.  Seeds usually winged or with terminal appendages.

Notes on delimitation

  • The family was considered by early authors to belong to the family Liliaceae (Zomlefer 2001), while more recently taxonomists have placed the members of this family in the Trilliaceae.  However, most authoritative modern treatments recognize Melanthiaceae as a separate family and place it in the order Liliales (APG III, 2009).
  • According to Tamura (1998), it is still uncertain which family is most closely related to Melanthiaceae, but the Colchicaceae and the Trilliaceae seem to be the best candidates.

Distribution in the Neotropics

The Melanthiaceae comprise 11-16 genera and 154-201 species, distributed in the temperate to artic regions of the Northern Hemisphere, extending to South America with two genera and three species.

  • Anticlea Kunth: (2 species) Mexico, Guatemala, Central America.
  • Schoenocaulon A.Gray: (1 species) Mexico, Central America,Venezuela, Peru.

Distinguishing characters (always present)

  • Leaves often evergreen.
  • Base sheathing.
  • Inflorescences (branched) racemose.
  • Placentation axile, ovules many/carpel.
  • Anthers extrorse.

Number of genera

Two genera in the Neotropics

  • Anticlea Kunth
  • Schoenocaulon A. Gray

Useful tips for generic identification

Key to genera of Neotropical Melanthiaceae

1a.  Tepals with 2 distinct or connate conspicuous nectar glands at the base … Anticlea
1b.  Tepals without glands or with inconspicuous nectar glands at the base … Schoenocaulon


  • Native.

General notes

  • The seeds of Schoenocaulon contain alkaloids which are used medicinally. They are dissolved in acetic acid and frequently used as insecticides.

Important literature

Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG) 2009. An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG III. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. 161: 105-121.

Govaerts, R. (2013). World Checklist of Melanthiaceae. Facilitated by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Published on the Internet; Retrieved 2012-04-24.

Tamura, M.N. 1998. Melanthiaceae. In: Kubitzki, K. (ed.). The Families and genera of Vascular Plants, vol. III. Flowering Plants, Monocotyledons, Lilianae (except Orchidaceae), pp. 369-380. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.

Zomlefer, W.B., Williams, N.H., Whitten, W.M. & Judd, W.S. 2001. Generic circumscriptions and relationships in the tribe Melanthieae (Liliales, Melanthiaceae), with emphasis on Zigadenus: Evidence from ITS and trnL-F sequence data. American Journal of Botany 88 (9): 1657-1669.

Zomlefer, WB & Judd, W.S. (2002). Resurrection of Segregates of the Polyphyletic Genus Zigadenus s.l. (Liliales: Melanthiaceae) and Resulting New Combinations. Novon 12 (2): 299-308.

Zomlefer, W.B., Whitten, W.M., Williams, N.H. & Judd, W.S. (2006), Infrageneric Phylogeny of Schoenocaulon (Liliales: Melanthiaceae) with Clarification of Cryptic Species Based on ITS Sequence Data and Geographical Distribution. American Journal of Botany 93 (8): 1178-1192.

How to cite

Assis, M.C., & Dutilh, J.H.A (2013). Neotropical Melanthiaceae. In: Milliken, W., Klitgård, B. & Baracat, A. (2009 onwards), Neotropikey - Interactive key and information resources for flowering plants of the Neotropics.,