Neotropical Menispermaceae

William Milliken

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK. 


Woody (sometimes herbaceous) vines, occasionally herbs, shrubs or trees.  Leaves alternate, simple (very rarely compound), usually palmately veined (sometimes pinnately), occasionally palmately lobed, margins usually entire, very rarely denticulate (Synandropus), occasionally peltate, sometimes with indumentum of simple hairs; petioles with basal or apical pulvinae, usually flexuousFlowers mostly inconspicuous, often greenish or dull red, unisexual (dioecious), borne on axillary or cauliflorous spikes, racemes or panicles, usually actinomorphic (except Cissampelos); perianth usually in multiples of 3, sepals 6-12 and petals 0-6-(12) (though 1 of each in female flowers of Cissampelos and 4 in male); stamens (1)-3-12-(40), filaments sometimes fused into a column, reduced to staminodes or absent in female flowers; anthers dehiscing by longitudinal or (apparently) oblique or horizontal slits; ovary superior, gynoecium apocarpous with (1)-3-6-(30) carpels and 2 ovules per carpel (1 abortive). Fruits fleshy or non-fleshy drupe-like monocarps, sometimes aggregated, often with a bony or woody endocarp, single-seeded; seeds usually curved; endosperm ruminate, not ruminate or absent.

Notes on delimitation

  • A clearly defined family situated within the Ranunculales, characterized by the presence of drupelets, a chondyle and large embryos (Ortiz et al., 2007). Placed by phylogenetic analyses close to the Berberidaceae, Ranunculaceae and Papaveraceae (Barneby & White, 2004).

Distribution in the Neotropics

  • Widely distributed throughout the Neotropics, particularly in the humid lowlands, although some genera (e.g. Cissampelos) also occur in arid areas.

Distinguishing characters (always present)

  • Simple alternate leaves, though one species - Disciphania cujibensis (R. Knuth) Sandwith - palmately compound.
  • Monocarpous one-seeded fruits.
  • Unisexual flowers.

Other important characters

  • Usually vines or lianas with a few exceptions: Abuta grandifolia (Mart.) Sandwith is a tree, and a few species such as Cissampelos ovalifolia DC. are herbaceous.
  • Petiole often pulvinate at apex (and/or at base) and generally visibly flexed.
  • Leaves commonly more or less sub-peltate (sometimes conspicuously so), sometimes drying blackish.
  • Curved seed ('moonseed') often with ruminate endosperm and surrounded by bony, ornamented endocarp.
  • Leaf venation usually palmate (though occasionally pinnate).
  • Petals and sepals commonly in multiples of three (not Cissampelos).
  • Cross-section of woody stems generally made up of concentric (often asymmetrical) rings of vessels with medullary rays.
  • Wood often bitter to the taste, sometimes yellow or yellowish.

Key differences from similar families

  • In a sterile condition certain Menispermaceae may be confused with Cucurbitaceae (from which they differ in the lack of tendrils) or Dioscoreaceae (which never have apically flexed pulvinae and whose branchlets often have swollen nodes).
  • They may also be confused with Aristolochiaceae (which also lack the apically flexed pulvinae and sometimes have leafy stipules), and possibly Sparattanthelium (Hernandiaceae), which differs in its ranalean odour and simple stem structure.
  • The leaves of some lianas (e.g. Abuta spp.) may perhaps be confused with those of Loganiaceae (Strychnos), from which they differ in their alternate (rather than opposite) arrangement.

Number of genera

Seventeen genera recorded in the Neotropics, including:

  • Abuta Aubl.
  • Anomospermum Miers
  • Borismene Barneby
  • Caryomene Barneby & Krukoff
  • Chondrodendron Ruíz & Pavón
  • Cionomene Krukoff
  • Cissampelos L.
  • Curarea Barneby & Krukoff
  • Disciphania Eichler
  • Elephantomene Barneby & Krukoff
  • Hyperbaena Miers ex. Benth.
  • Odontocarya Miers.
  • Orthomene Barneby & Krukoff
  • Sciadotenia Miers.
  • Synandropus A.C. Sm.
  • Telitoxicum Mold.
  • Tinospora Miers. [introduced]
  • Ungulipetalum

Useful tips for generic identification

[adapted from Gentry (1993)]





  • Black or purple fleshy drupes - Odontocarya or Disciphania.
  • Hard, red/orange/black monocarps - Abuta, Anomospermum and relatives.
  • Hard, grey or tan-pubescent monocarps - Chondrodendron, Curarea and relatives [if 6 or more of these per flower - Chondrodendron or Sciadotenia].



  •  Pulvinately flexuous at base [sometimes also pulvinate at apex] - Odontocarya, Disciphania, Borismene.



  • Endosperm not ruminate - Odontocarya, Disciphania, Borismene.
  • Endosperm absent - Chondrodendron, Curarea, Cionomene, Sciadotenia, Hyperbaena.
  • Endosperm ruminate - Telitoxicum, Abuta and Caryomene (seed U-shaped); Anomospermum, Orthomene (seed straight or J-shaped).
  • Leaf margins: Dentate - Synandropus.


  • Native to the Neotropics.

General notes

  • Most species of this family contain powerful alkaloids with biochemical activity.
  • Many are used in medicines (e.g. for stomach disorders, malaria). Several are also used in the preparation of arrow and dart poisons, including Curarea, Chondrodendron, Abuta, Telitoxicum
  • Chondrodendron tomentosum Ruiz & Pav. is the original natural source of the alkaloid tubocurarine, used as a muscle relaxant in surgical procedures.
  • Some Menispermaceae (e.g. Abuta grandifolia (Mart.) Sandwith) have edible fruits.

Important literature

Barneby, R.C. 1970. Revision of neotropical Menispermaceae tribe Tinosporeae. Mem. New York Bot. Gard. 20: 81-158.

Barneby, R.C. and Krukoff B.A. 1971. Supplementary notes on American Menispermaceae. VIII. A generic survey of the American Triclisieae and Anomospermeae. Mem. New York Bot. Gard. 22: 1-89.

Barneby, R. and White, P. 2004. Menispermaceae, pp 247-9. In: Smith, N.A., Mori, S.A., Henderson, A., Stevenson, D.W. and Heald, S.V. (eds.), Flowering plants of the Neotropics. New York Botanical Garden & Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Carlquist, S. 1996. Wood and stem anatomy of Menispermaceae. Aliso 14: 155-170.

Diels, L. 1910. Menispermaceae. In: Engler, A., Das Pflanzenreich IV, 94, 1-345.

Gentry, A.H. 1993. A Field Guide to the Families and Genera of Woody Plants of Northwest South America with Supplementary Notes on Herbaceous Taxa. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Hong, Y.-P. Chen, Z.-D. and Lu, A.-M. 2001. Phylogeny of the tribe Menispermeae (Menispermaceae) reconstructed by ITS sequence data. Acta Phytotax. Sinica 39: 97-104.

Kessler, P.J.A. 1993. Menispermaceae, pp. 402-418. In: Kubitzki, K., Rohwer, J.G. and Bittrich, V. (eds.), The families and genera of vascular plants, vol. 2. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.

Krukoff, B.A. and Barneby, R.C. 1970. Supplementary Notes on American Menispermaceae - VI. Mem. New York Bot. Gard. 20: 1-70.

Krukoff, B.A. and Moldenke, H.N. 1938. Studies of American Menispermaceae, with special reference to species used in preparation of arrow-poisons. Brittonia 3: 1-74.

Mathias, M.E. & Theobald, W.L. 1981.  A revision of the genus Hyperbaena.  Brittonia 33(1): 81-104.

Ortiz, R. 2000. Systematic revision of Curarea Barneby & Krukoff (Menispermaceae). Master's thesis unpublished, University of Missouri-St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri, USA.

Ortiz, R. (undated). América Tropical - géneros comunes de Menispermaceae. Field Museum Plant Guides:

Ortiz, R., Kellogg, A. and van der Werff, H. 2007. Molecular phylogeny of the moonseed family (Menispermaceae): implications for morphological diversification. Amer. J. Bot. 94:1425-1438.

How to cite

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