Combretaceae Plant Family

About the Combretaceae or Combretum Family

Combretaceae is a family of woody flowering plants characterized by alternate leaves and fruit that are often winged or have bur- appendages. The family includes trees, shrubs, and climbers found in tropical and subtropical regions worldwide, with the highest diversity in Africa. Many species within this family have economic importance as sources of timber, medicinal compounds, or ornamental plants. Combretaceae play important ecological roles as well, providing habitat, food sources, and contributing to biodiversity.

Taxonomy and Classification

Combretaceae is a family of flowering plants in the order Myrtales, which also includes other economically important families such as Myrtaceae and Melastomataceae. Combretaceae comprises around 20 genera and 600 species, with the highest diversity in Africa. The largest genus, Combretum, includes around 370 species, while Terminalia is another well- genus with around 200 species. Some subfamilies have been proposed within this family, including the Combretoideae and the Guioideae, but their taxonomic status remains uncertain. Combretaceae are closely related to Lythraceae, Onagraceae, and Vochysiaceae.

Morphology and Characteristics

Combretaceae exhibit a wide range of growth habits, from trees and shrubs to lianas and climbers. They have simple, alternate leaves that are often entire or toothed, with prominent veins. The leaf shape can be highly variable within species of Combretum. Flowers are usually small, inconspicuous, and arranged in spikes or heads. The flowers have 4- sepals and petals, and the fruit is usually a capsule with wing- appendages or bur- structures called samaras. Some species produce fleshy fruits that are edible or used in traditional medicine. Many Combretaceae are able to tolerate drought conditions and are common in dry forests and savannas.

Distribution and Habitat

Combretaceae are distributed mainly in tropical and subtropical regions of the world, with the highest diversity in Africa. They can be found in a variety of habitats, from rainforests and savannas to deserts and coastal areas. Some species are adapted to saline or wetland environments, such as Avicennia germinans, which is a mangrove tree that grows in intertidal zones. Other species are adapted to dry conditions, including Terminalia spinosa, which is a desert tree found in arid regions of North Africa and the Middle East. While many Combretaceae are native to their respective regions, some species have been introduced to other parts of the world and have become invasive, such as the Chinese tallow (Triadica sebifera) in the southeastern United States.

Economic and Ecological Importance

Combretaceae are of great importance both economically and ecologically. Many species within this family have economic uses, such as the production of timber, tannins, and medicinal compounds. For example, Terminalia arjuna is used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat cardiovascular problems, while Quisqualis indica has been used to treat skin diseases in traditional Chinese medicine. Other species, including Combretum micranthum, have been used for their insecticidal and pesticidal properties.

Ecologically, Combretaceae play important roles in their respective ecosystems by providing habitat, food sources, and contributing to biodiversity. The trees and shrubs in this family are often used as shade or ornamental plants, and many have cultural or spiritual significance in local traditions. However, some species have become invasive in certain parts of the world, causing ecological damage and threatening native species.

Notable Species

Some notable species within the Combretaceae family include:

  • Terminalia ferdinandiana: Also known as the Kakadu plum, this tree is native to northern Australia and has the highest recorded levels of vitamin C of any fruit in the world. The fruit is used in traditional medicine and as a food source.

  • Combretum indicum: A large shrub or small tree native to India and Southeast Asia, Combretum indicum has beautiful orange- flowers that bloom in summer. It is often used as an ornamental plant in gardens and parks.

  • Quisqualis indica: Also known as the Rangoon creeper, this climbing vine is native to South and Southeast Asia and produces fragrant, colorful flowers that change color from white to pink to red as they age. It is grown as an ornamental plant and is used in traditional medicine.

  • Laguncularia racemosa: A mangrove tree native to the Americas, Laguncularia racemosa has distinctive leaves that are rounded at the tip. It is an important species for stabilizing coastal ecosystems and is often used in reforestation efforts.

  • Combretum molle: Native to southern Africa, Combretum molle is a shrub or small tree with showy yellow flowers that bloom in winter. It is often used as a medicinal plant, particularly for treating colds and flu.

These species represent just a few examples of the diversity and importance of the Combretaceae family.