home browse overview


All species of this small family are native to southern Africa; 2 species of Melianthus are grown in gardens in Australia and occasionally escape cultivation in the southern States.

Characteristic features of the family Melianthaceae in Australia include:

  • soft-wooded shrubs with large, foetid, pinnately or irregularly lobed leaves with large, membranous stipules joined to the base of the petiole
  • flowers strongly zygomorphic, pouched, red, in terminal or axillary racemes with large bracts
  • stamens 4, 2 long and 2 shorter
  • ovary superior, developing into an inflated, winged capsule


Evergreen, suckering shrubs. Internal secretions not obvious. Plants glabrous, or with stellate, non-glandular, unicellular or uniseriate hairs. Leaves alternate and spiral, petiolate. Stipules intrapetiolar, green and leafy or bristle-like, persistent; stipellae absent. Lamina once compound, imparipinnate, symmetric; leaflets lanceolate, ovate, elliptic or oblong; base cuneate, rounded or oblique; margins serrate, ±flat; venation pinnate, with the midrib conspicuous, and the tertiary venation not reticulate; surfaces not punctate; herbaceous; distinctive odour foetid. All the flowers bisexual. Inflorescences terminal or axillary, consisting of racemes. Bracts present. Pollination by insects or birds. Flowers stalked. Floral disc present; nectaries present on the disc. Perianth irregular, of 2 dissimilar whorls, imbricate in bud. Calyx segments free or fused, with 45 sepals or lobes, herbaceous, base saccate. Corolla segments free, with 45 petals, alternating with the sepals or calyx lobes; corolla 1-lipped, red, grey, brown or black, without contrasting markings, membranous; claws present; lobes ±entire. Fertile stamens 4, opposite to the sepals or calyx lobes, free of the corolla, free of ovary and style, distinct from each other, in 2 unequal pairs. Anthers basifixed, not versatile, opening inwards by longitudinal slits, 2-celled. Ovary superior and sessile. Carpels 45, fused; ovary with 4 locules. Style terminal, single and unbranched with the stigma in a style cleft. Ovules 24 per locule, sessile; placentation axile. Fruit a dry dehiscent loculicidal capsule; the perianth on the maturing fruit persistent. Disseminule micro-surface ±smooth, black, glossy. Seeds 48 per fruit. Aril absent. Cotyledons 2. Embryo straight.
(Note: this description has been generated from the coded data compiled for the key. Any errors in the key data will be reflected in the descriptions.)

A treatment of the family Melianthaceae has been published in:
Flora of Australia 25: 1-2.

Australian genera of Melianthaceae (as recognised for the Flora of Australia)

* = all species introduced


Melianthus major (flowers)
Photo: K.Thiele ABRS 

Melianthus major (habit)
Photo: K.Thiele ABRS