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Apocynaceae is a family of flowering plants that includes trees, shrubs, herbs, stem succulents, and vines, commonly called the dogbane family. Members of the family are native to European, Asian, African, Australian and American tropics or subtropics, with some temperate members.
Many species are tall trees found in tropical rainforests, but some grow in tropical dry (xeric) environments. There are also perennial herbs from temperate zones. Many of these plants have milky latex, and many species are poisonous if ingested. Some genera of Apocynaceae, such as Adenium, have milky latex apart from their sap, and others, such as Pachypodium, have clear sap and no latex.
Species in this family are distributed mainly in tropical regions:
- In the rainforests and swamps of Indomalaya: small to very tall evergreen trees up to 80 m tall, often with buttress roots, such as Alstonia and Dyera
- In northern Australia: small evergreen trees such as Alstonia, Alyxia, Cerbera and Ochrosia
- In deciduous forests of Africa and India: smaller trees such as Carissa, Wrightia and Holarrhena
- In tropical America, India, Myanmar and Malaya: evergreen trees and shrubs, such as Rauvolfia, Tabernaemontana and Acokanthera
- In Central America: Plumeria, or the frangipani, with its waxy white or pink flowers and a sweet scent
- In South America, Africa and Madagascar: many lianas, such as Landolphia
- In the Mediterranean region: Nerium, with the well-known oleander or be-still tree (Nerium oleander)
- The only genera found in temperate Europe away from the Mediterranean are Vinca (Apocynoideae) and Vincetoxicum (Asclepiadoideae).
- In North America: Apocynum, dogbane or Indian hemp, including Apocynum cannabinum, a traditional source of fiber
- In continental southern Africa (Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe) and Madagascar, except for the humid evergreen forest of the eastern side of Madagascar, and never above 2000 m for the entire island: Pachypodium and Fockea
The dogbane family consists of trees, shrubs, herbs, or lianas; most of them exuding milky latex if injured. The leaves are simple, usually opposite and decussate, or whorled; lacking stipules. Flowers are usually showy, actinomorphic, aggregated in cymose or racemose inflorescences (rarely fasciculate or solitary). They are perfect (bisexual), with a synsepalous, five-lobed calyx united into a tube at the base. Inflorescences are terminal or axillary. Five petals are united into a tube with four or five epipetalous stamens. The style is expanded at the apex into a massive clavuncle just below the stigma. The ovary is usually superior, bicarpellary, and apocarpous, with a common fused style and stigma. The fruit is a drupe, a berry, a capsule or a follicle.
Several plants of this family had economic uses in the past.
The juice of Acokanthera species such as A. venenata and the milky juice of the Namibian Pachypodium has been used as venom for arrow tips by the Bushmen. Some sources state that Pachypodium do not produce a milky latex.
Several genera are grown as ornamental plants, including Amsonia (bluestar), Nerium (oleander), Vinca (periwinkle), Carissa (Natal plum, an edible fruit), Allamanda (golden trumpet), Plumeria (frangipani), Thevetia (lucky nut), Mandevilla (Savannah flower), Adenium (desert-rose).
Some are sources of important drugs, such as cardiac glycosides, which affect heart function. These include the Acokanthera, Apocynum, Cerbera, Nerium, Thevetia and Strophantus. Rauvolfia serpentina, or Indian Snakeroot, yields the alkaloids reserpine and rescinnamine, which are useful tools in the treatment of high blood pressure and even some forms of psychosis. Catharanthus roseus yields alkaloids used in treating cancer.
Apocynoideae and Rauvolfioideae are part of Apocynaceae sensu stricto, whilst the other three subfamilies belong to the former Asclepiadaceae. The Apocynaceae family is the result of a conflation of these two families.
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