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What is Araceae?

By Angie Bates
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Araceae is a family of plants with approximately 106 genera and 3,330 species. It contains extremely diverse species, both in appearance and in use. Though many species are used as ornamental plants, both indoor and outdoor, some are used as food, and still others have been historically used for medicinal purposes. Usually found in tropical regions, many species will cause skin irritation if handled.

Species appearance varies considerably. These plants are found both aquatically and terrestrially. Some species, like aglaeonema, may be houseplants, some climbing ornamental plants, such as Monstera deliciosa, and some are floating plants, like Pistia stratiotes or water lettuce.

Common attributes of plants in the Araceae family include berry fruit and small flowers which are clustered on a branch or branch system, called an inflorescence. Plants in this family all have a spike-like inflorescence called a spadix, with a bract, or a scale-like leaf, below the flower clusters. The bract may be brightly colored. Many species also have large leaves and stinky sap.

The calla lily provides a good visual example of the general parts of a Araceae plant. The curving white petal which surrounds the tubular, yellow fuzzy stem is actually the bract, and is not a petal but a white leaf. The fuzzy stem is the inflorescence, or spadix. It appears fuzzy because of the tiny flowers clustered on it.

Additionally, these species all contain calcium oxalate in crystal form, which causes skin irritation when sap gets on skin. Though some species can be eaten when cooked, species should never be eaten raw because of the calcium oxalate. For example, the species Dieffenbachia picta is commonly called dumb cane because eating the raw stems is said to make a person lose his or her voice. There have been some reports of consuming the raw plant causing death in small children.

Though medicinal uses of Araceae species are no longer apparent, there is evidence that the Native Americans used some species for medicine. In Asian countries, species are often used for food, even subsistence crops. The United States, however, generally uses the plants for ornamental purposes.

Though taxonomy is under debate, in 1997 seven subfamilies in Araceae were recognized. Only three of the subfamilies, containing about seven genera, are found in the United States. Genera may be endemic, such as Peltandra, or transplanted, like Arisaema, which is native to Europe and Asia. One genus holds a well known flower in the US: the calla lily, Zantedeschia aethiopica.

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