Species distribution and density. Darker squares represent higher density of members of this family.


Gardenia family

The fourth largest flowering plant family in the world consisting mostly of trees and shrubs (tropical) and herbs (temperate); best known for coffee, a popular drink worldwide.


Mostly found in tropical and subtropical regions but also represented by species in temperate and cold regions. Widespread in southern Africa, but concentrated in the northeastern summer-rainfall areas.

Number of genera in the world

ca. 615

Number of species in the world

ca. 13 150

Number of genera in the Flora of southern Africa region



Number of species in the Flora of southern Africa region


Well-known southern African genera

Canthium, Gardenia, Pavetta, Vangueria

Growth forms

Mostly small trees or shrubs but also annual or perennial herbs, geofrutices, lianas and epiphytes.


Found in arid vegetation, open scrub to forest margins, thicket and damp grassland; often the most species-rich woody plant family in tropical forest.

Flagship species

Vangueria infausta (wild medlar; wildemispel [A]; mmilo [NS]; umviyo [Z]) is a small deciduous tree found mainly on rocky hillsides in the northeastern parts of southern Africa. The leaves are velvety, often with galls on the upper surface. The fruit have a high vitamin C content and are eaten by people, birds, monkeys and antelope. Roots, fruit and leaves are used medicinally. The specific name means 'unlucky' and many people will not use the wood.


Significance of the family

An economically important family, as the genus Coffea is the main source of coffee. Members of the family also provide the dyes 'madder' (Rubia) and 'gambier' (*Uncaria). Many tropical species are cultivated as garden ornamentals (Gardenia, Rothmannia, Pavetta). Numerous taxa have local medicinal uses (Pentanisia, Rothmannia). Quinine (*Cinchona sp.) was an important malarial prophylaxis and is still used as a food and drink flavouring. Some members are toxic to livestock (Pachystigma, Pavetta). Gardenia is a source of essential oils used in the perfume industry.

Diagnostic characters

Leaves opposite, sometimes whorled, always entire, with an interpetiolar stipule or scar; some genera have leaves with bacterial nodules (Pavetta, Psychotria) and/or domatia (Psydrax). Flowers regular  and borne terminally or axillary; petals 4 or 5, united into a tube , with the mouth of the tube usually hairy . Ovary inferior ? with mostly 2 locules. Fruit often crowned with persistent calyx lobes .

Did you know?

*Gardenia florida, a native of China, produces an essential oil that is widely used in the perfume industry. It takes approximately three to four tonnes of flowers to produce 500 g of absolute oil.