Neotropical Smilacaceae

Jesús Rodrigo Botina-Papamija

Universidad del Valle, Cali, Colombia. 


Vines, usually climbing by paired tendrils, or rarely erect herbs, often with thick, tuber-like rhizomes. Stems rounded or sometimes quadrangular, armed with spines or unarmed, the surface smooth, scabrous, villose or setose. Base of branchlets provided with one or two scales on the adaxial side. Leaves simple, alternate, petiole usually geniculate, with sheath terminating in a pair of tendrils; blade broadly cordate to lanceolate, glabrous, smooth or ciliate, spiny or with unbranched hairs, with 3-9 subparallel primary veins arising from or near the base (3 inner veins), the lower order of venation reticulate, the margin entire. Inflorescences pedunculate, axillary, an umbela or panicle of umbels. Flowers unisexual (the plants dioecious); perianth segments 6, distinct, narrow, equal or nearly so; stamens 6, free, the anthers basifixed, 2-celled, dehiscing longitudinally; ovary superior, syncarpous, 1- or 3-locular, with 1 or 2 ovules in each locule, the placentation axile; stigmas 3, sessile, in female flowers 0-6 staminodes present. Fruit a fleshy and globose berry, indehiscent, smooth, orange, yellow, or black when mature; seeds 1-3, arillate, less than 10 mm in size.

Notes on delimitation

Distribution in the Neotropics

  • The family Smilacaceae is distributed throughout the Neotropics, occupying several habitats at elevations from 0 to 3,200 meters.

Distinguishing characters (always present)

Other important characters

  • Climbing vines.
  • Petiole geniculate.

Key differences from similar families

Smilacaceae is similar to Dioscoreaceae in comprising vines with net-veined leaves. However, Smilacaceae has:

  • Leaves with petiolar sheaths terminating in a pair of tendrils.
  • Inflorescences an umbel or panicle of umbels.
  • Fruit a berry with 1-3 seeds.

 Whereas family Dioscoreaceae has:

  • Leaves without petiolar sheaths nor tendrils.
  • Inflorescences mostly spicate, racemose, or paniculate.
  • Fruit a 3-winged loculicidal capsule.

Number of genera

  • The family is represented in the Neotropics by the genus Smilax  L. only, comprising ca. 100 species.

Useful tips for generic identification

Smilax is easily recognized by:


  • Smilax is native to the Neotropics.

General notes

  • Smilacaceae has often been considered to be related to Dioscoreaceae, order Dioscoreales, but actually there is agreement among botanists that the family belongs in the Liliales. The family has also been included in the polyphyletic Liliaceae s.l. Since the publication of APG II (2003) it is accepted that Smilacaceae comprises two genera, Smilax and Heterosmilax Kunth, and ca. 300 species worldwide. However, some botanists have recently considered the family to comprise only Smilax with ca. 200 species.
  • The family, and specially Smilax, is distributed in tropical, subtropical, and temperate areas of both hemispheres, with most species concentrated in the Neotropics and tropical Asia.
  • In the Neotropics the rhizomes of most species of Smilax are used medicinally, but especially S. officinalis Kunth, S. longifolia Rich., S. siphilitica Humb. & Bonpl. ex Willd., S. aristolochiifolia Mill., S. moranensis M.Martens & Galeotti and S. domingensis Spreng. ex A. DC.  The stems of some species such as S. tomentosa Kunth are used in basket-making.  

Important literature

Andreata, P.R.H. 1997. Revisão das espécies brasileiras do gênero Smilax Linnaeus (Smilacaceae). Pesq. 47: 1-243.

APG II. 2003. An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG II. Bot. J. Linn. Soc. 141: 399-436.

Botina-P., J.R. 2008. Revisión taxonómica y fitogeografía del género Smilax L.(Smilacaceae) en Colombia. Trabajo de Investigación. Universidad del Valle, Facultad de Ciencias Exactas y Naturales, Departamento de Biología, Programa Maestría en Ciencias-Biología, Santiago de Cali-Colombia.

Cameron, K.M. and Fu, C.X. 2005. A nuclear rDNA phylogeny of Smilax (Smilacaceae). Aliso 22: 598-605.

Chen, S.C., Qiu, Y.X., Wang, A.L., Cameron, K.M. and Fu, C.X. 2006a. A phylogenetic analysis of the Smilacaceae based on morphological data. Act. Phytotax. Sinica 44(2): 113-125.

Chen, S.C., Zhang, S.P., Ni, S.F., Fu, C.X. and Cameron, K.M. 2006b. The systematic value of pollen morphology in Smilacaceae. Pl. Syst. Evol. 259: 19-37.

Conran, J.G. 1998. Smilacaceae. Pp. 417-422. In: K. Kubitzki (ed.), The families and Genera of Vascular Plants, vol. 3.  Springer Verlag, Berlin.

Cronquist, A. 1981. An integrated system of classification of flowering plants. Columbia University Press, New York.

Dahlgren, R.M.T., Clifford H.T. and Yeo, P.E. 1985. The families of monocotyledons. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.

De Candolle, A.P.P. 1878. Smilax. Pp. 45-213. In: De Candolle, A.P.P. and C.P. De Candolle (eds.), Monographiae Phanerogamarum. Sumptibus G. Masson, Parisiis.

Ferrufino, L. and Gómez, J. 2004. Estudio morfológico de Smilax L. (Smilacaceae) en Costa Rica, con implicaciones sistemáticas. Lankesteriana 4(1): 5-36.

Gaskin, J. F. and Berry, P.E. 1988. New synonymy and useful taxonomic characters in Smilax (Smilacaceae) from the Venezuelan Guayana. Novon 8: 364-370.

Gaskin, J.K. and Berry, P.E. 2005. Smilacaceae. In: J.A. Steyermark, P.E. Berry, K. Yatskievich and B.K. Holst (eds.), Flora of the Venezuelan Guayana, vol. 9, Rutaceae -Zygophyllaceae. Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, Missouri.

Grisebach, H.A. 1842. Smilaceae. Pp. 1-24. In: C.F.P. von Martius et al. (eds.), Flora Brasiliensis, vol. 3, n 1, Leipzig, München.

Guaglianone, E. R. and S. Gattuso. 1991. Estudios taxonómicos sobre el género Smilax (Smilacaceae) I. Bol. Soc. Argent. Bot. 27(1-2): 105-129.

Howard, R. A. 1979. Genus Smilax L. in the Lesser Antilles. Taxon 28: 55-58.

Huft, M. J. 1994. Smilacaceae. Pp. 20-25. In: G. Davidse, M. Sousa & A.O. Chater (eds.), Flora Mesoamericana, Vol. 6, Alismataceae a Cyperaceae. Universidad Autónoma de México, México D.F.; Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis; The Natural History Museum, London.

Judd, W. S., Campell, C.S., Kellogg, E.A., Stevens, P.F. and Donoghue, J.M.  2002. Plant systematics, a phylogenetic approach. 2 ed. Sinauer Associates, Inc., Sunderland, Massachusetts.

Killip, E.P. and Morton, C.V. 1936. A revision of the Mexican and Central American species of Smilax. Carnegie Inst. Wash. Publ. 461: 255-296.

Kunth, C.S. 1850. Smilax. Pp. 160-263 in Enumeratio Plantarum, Tomus V. Sumtibus J. G. Cottae, Stutgardiae et Tubingae.

Maas, P.J.M. and Westra, L.Y.T. 2004. Neotropical plant families. 3rd ed. A.R.G. Gantner Verlag K.G., Vaduz, Liechtenstein.

Morales, F. J. 2003. Smilacaceae. Pp. 833-838. In: B.E. Hammel, M.H. Grayum, C. Herrera and N. Zamora (eds.), Manual de Plantas de Costa Rica, vol. 3, Monocotiledoneas. Monogr. Syst. Bot. Missouri Bot. Gard. 93.

Morton, C.V. 1945. Smilacaceae. Pp. 6-11. In: R. E. Woodson and R.N. Schery (eds.), Flora of Panama. Ann. Missouri Bot. Gard. 32(1): 6-11.

Morton, C.V. 1962. A re-examination of Mexican Smilax (Smilacaceae). Brittonia 14: 299-309.

Schulz, O.E. 1904-1908. Smilax. Pp 17-47. In: I. Urban (ed.), Symbolae Antillanae seu Fundamenta Florae Indiae Occidentalis, vol. 5. Paul Klincksieck, Paris; Williams & Norgate, London.

Sipman, H. 1979. Liliaceae. Pp. 442-456. In: A.L. Stoffers & J.C. Lindeman (eds.), Flora of Suriname, Vol. 5, Part 1. Foundation Van Eedenfonds, Amsterdam.

How to cite

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