Family Profile: The Sapindaceae

By Emily Barnes and Dan Moore

This post is one of a series from professor Nisse Goldberg's Plant Taxonomy students at Jacksonville University. FNPS blogger Laurie Sheldon assisted the students with their initial drafts, providing suggestions for editing and content development.

Figure 1. Acer saccharum ssp. floridanum, FL
sugar maple. Photo credit: Michael Drummond.
Plant Sex: Bisexual (ex: Bligia sapida) or unisexual (ex: Litchi chinensis)
Flowers: Radial to bilateral, with a nectar disk usually present
Fruits: Loculicidal and septicidal capsules (ex: Bilia columbiana), berries (ex: Litchi chinensis), samaras (ex: Acer rubrum), and schizocarps (ex: Dipteronia sinensis)

Leaves: Alternate or opposite; pinanately or palmately compound, trifoliate or unifoliate

Figure 2. Aesculus pavia (red buckeye) flowers
are popular with hummingbirds and butterflies.
Photo credit: Shirley Denton.

Sapindaceae is commonly referred to as the “soapberry family” and includes trees, shrubs, and lianas. Serjania is the largest genus of the Sapindaceae, which includes 215 species. Species in this family are largely found in Asia and America, specifically in tropical to subtropical regions. 

In Florida, the Sapindaceae has14 representative native species  within 8 distinct genera, including maples (fig. 1), buckeyes or horse-chestnuts (fig. 2), and soapberries (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Sapindus saponaria, soapberry.
Photo credit: Craig Huegel.
Fun facts
Sapindus saponaria can be used as soap. (This explains the common name for the family, “soapberry”). By crushing the berries to get to the saponin, Native Americans and early settlers were able to make soap and other cleansers.
Schleichera trijuga produces macassar oil, which can be used in ointments.
Paullinia cupana produces guarana, a potable liquid. Brazilians are known to be very fond of drinking guarana! It can also be found in Rockstar and Redbull energy drinks.
Blighia sapida contains an edible aril which can be poisonous if eaten during the wrong stage of ripeness! People of West Africa are known to eat this fruit.
Melicocca bijuga is harvested for its tasty Spanish lime in South America.


Image sources


Unknown said…
Does anyone know where I might find a full grown Western Soap Berry tree in South Florida?
The Jolly Bloggers said…
Hi Rhonda,
Western soapberry (Sapindus saponaria var. drummondii) is not a plant that is common to Florida - it is found in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. Wingleaf soapberry (Sapindus saponaria var saponaria) or Florida soapberry (Sapindus marginatus) are its closest Florida relatives. Check with or for availability.

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