Neotropical Pentaphylacaceae

Jon L.R. Every

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK. 


Trees or shrubs (3-)10(-20) m tall, usually evergreen. Leaves alternate, spiral or sometimes distichous, simple, petiolate, or rarely sessile (Freziera Willd.), often asymmetrical, coriaceous, margin entire, serrate or occasionally serrulate or crenulate, small deciduous bristle-like glands often terminating each tooth, venation pinnate, secondary venation visible, and parallel in Freziera, midrib usually depressed adaxially and raised abaxially, black gland dots present abaxially (Ternstroemia Mutis ex L.f.), exstipulate. Inflorescence axillary, cymose, rarely racemose or fasciculate (1)4(-15)-flowered or flowers solitary (Ternstroemia). Flower actinomorphic, bisexual or unisexual and functionally dioecious with pistillode present in staminate flowers and appearing hermaphroditic (Freziera), pedicellate, bracteoles 2; calyx with 5(-6) sepals, these imbricate, distinct or basally connate, setae occasionally bordering the sepal, persistent in fruit; corolla with 5 petals, these imbricate, distinct or slightly connate at the base; stamens 10-50 or more, staminodia present in female flowers, anthers basifixed, occasionally slightly connate at the base, adnate to base of corolla, often hirsute; gynoecium syncarpous, ovary superior and narrowing apically or appearing semi-inferior (Symplocarpon Airy Shaw), carpels (1-)3, locules (1-)3, style1-3, stigmas 2-5. Fruit a berry, indehiscent, or with irregular or circumscissile dehiscence, or a drupe, fleshy or infrequently dry, persistent calyx and style. Seed pendulous, can be numerous, up to 10mm in length, aril present in Ternstroemia.

Notes on delimitation

  • The Neotropical genera of Pentaphylacaceae have historically been part of Theaceae (due to shared morphological characters such as imbricate perianth segments and the longitudinal dehiscence of the anthers) being treated as subfamily Ternstroemioideae or following molecular work as a separate family the Ternstroemiaceae (Prince and Parks, 2001).
  • Commonly divided into three tribes (two of which include Neotropical genera); Ternstroemieae containing Ternstroemia and the Freziereae consisting of three Neotropical genera Frezieria, Cleyera Thunb. and Symplocarpon. The third tribe includes the monotypic Pentaphyllax Gardner & Champ. with a distribution limited to South East Asia.
  • The problem of recognising the name Pentaphylacaceae is that it is conserved, however it currently takes priority over Ternstroemiaceae which is now subsumed under Pentaphylacaceae.

Distribution in the Neotropics

  • Found throughout the Neotropics in montane areas, particularly in cloud forests.
  • Freziera species do particularly well in disturbed environments.

Distinguishing characters (always present)

Other important characters

  • Flowers white to pinkish, semi-succulent, conspicuous.
  • Hermaphroditic flowers (bisexual in Freziera).
  • Bracteolate (although can be quick to fall in Cleyera).
  • Stamens in a single whorl in Cleyera and Frezieria otherwise 2-many whorls.
  • Anthers shorter than the filaments in Cleyera and Frezieria.
  • Degrees of serration of the leaf margins which often end in marginal setae.
  • Fruit that is baccate or dry, and indehiscent (Ternstroemia).
  • Calyx and style persistent in fruit.

Key differences from similar families

Number of genera

Four Neotropical and thirteen worldwide with a total of approximately 300 species:

  • Cleyera Thunb., with 16 Neotropical species.
  • Freziera Willd., consisting of ca. 42 species in the Neotropics.
  • Symplocarpon Airy Shaw, containing 9 Neotropical species.
  • Ternstroemia Mutis ex L.f., ca. 60 species in the Neotropics.

Useful tips for generic identification




  • Leaves distichous.
  • Deciduous bracts.
  • Stamens in a single series.
  • Filaments twice as long as the anthers.
  • Ovaries 2-3 locular.
  • Ovules 8-16.



  • Cleyera and Ternstroemia are pantropical.
  • Freziera and Symplococarpon are endemic to the Neotropics.

Important literature

Luna, I. and Ochoterena, H. 2004. Phylogenetic relationships of the genera of Theaceae based on morphology. Cladistics 20: 223-270.

Maas, P.J.M. and Westra, L.Y. Th. 2005. Neotropical Plant Families. 3rd ed., p. 247. A.R.G. Gantner Verlag K.G., Ruggell.

Morton, C. M., Chase, M.C., Kron, K.A. and Swensen, S.M. 1996. A molecular evaluation of the monophyly of the order Ebenales based upon rbcL sequence data. Syst. Bot. 21: 567-67.

Pool, A. 2001. Theaceae. Pp 2443-48. In: W.D. Stevens, C. Ulloa Ulloa, A. Pool and O.M. Montiel (eds.) Flora de Nicaragua 3, Angiosperms (Pandanaceae-Zygophyllaceae) Missouri Botanical Garden Press, Missouri.

Prince, L.M. and Parks, C.L. 2001. Phylogenetic relationships of Theaceae inferred from chloroplast DNA sequence data. American Journal of Botany 88(12): 2309-2320.

Pennington, T.D. 2004. Illustrated guide to the trees of Peru, Pp. 212-215. David Hunt Press, Milborne Port, Sherborne.

Stevens, P. F. (2008). Angiosperm Phylogeny Website. Version 9 onwards.

Stevens, P.F., Dressler, S. and Weitzman, A.L. 2004a. Ternstroemiaceae. Pp. 450-460. In: Kubitzki, K. (ed.).Families and genera of vascular plants. Vol. 6. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.

Stevenson, D.W. and Stevenson, J.W.M. 2004. Ternstroemiaceae. Pp. 367-368. In: Smith, N., Mori, S.A., Henderson, A., Stevenson, D.W. and Heald, S.V. (eds). Flowering Plants of the Neotropics. The New York Botanical Garden, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

How to cite

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