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What is an Annonaceae?

By Rebecca Cartwright
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The term "Annonaceae" refers to plants in the Annonaceae family, which is a member of the order Magnoliales. It is the largest of the families in that order, with more than 120 genera and more than 2,200 species. The common name of the family is custard apple family.

Most plants in this family are shrubs and small trees, and a few species are woody vines of the type lianas. The family has both deciduous and evergreen members. Common characteristics of the family members include aromatic bark and having two rows of smooth-edged leaves arranged alternately on their branches.

Flowers of these species are usually shades of yellow or white and have six petals and multiple pistils. Most plants in this family also have the sepals at the base of their flowers divided into three sections. The fruits, which develop from the pistils, may be borne singly or in clusters. In some species the developing ovaries merge into multi-part fruits.

The Annonaceae family is found worldwide. Most members of the family are tropical or sub-tropical, and a wide variety are found in the jungles of the Amazon. Fruit-bearing species primarily originated in the Americas, but human activity has spread them to all tropical regions of the world.

Species of Annonaceae were once widespread outside the tropics, but the majority of non-tropical genera and species have died out. Some species, such as the custard apple itself, can be grown as far north as Florida. The pawpaw tree of the American southeast, Asimina triloba, is a surviving temperate-zone representative of the family.

Annonaceae family species are primarily cultivated for their fruit. Fruit-bearing Annonaceae in widespread economic use include the custard apple, or Annona reticulata; cherimoya, or Annona cherimola; soursop, or Annona muricata; and sweetsop, or Annona squamosa, which is also known as sugar apple. Pawpaw trees are not cultivated commercially, but their fruit is highly prized. The pond apple, also called alligator apple or Annona glabra, does not bear good eating fruit but makes excellent rootstock for orchard species.

In Amazon regions, indigenous people used shredded Annonaceae bark as twine and the wood as firewood. Timber uses include outdoor construction, such as bridges and utility poles. Some species, such as the mast tree, or Polyalthia longifolia pendula, are grown as ornamental trees in tropical and sub-tropical regions. The ylang-ylang tree, Cananga odorata, has very fragrant blossoms used commercially in cosmetics. In the late 20th century, scientists began to study many Annonaceae species for possible pharmaceutical uses.

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