Soapberry Family

Sapindaceae (sap-in-DAY-see-ee)

California Buckeye © TCorelli

Iconic Features

  • Deciduous trees and shrubs
  • Generally compound leaves
  • Flowers with prominent nectar disks

Description (Jepson)

  • Eudicotyledons (eudicots) – a major lineage of flowering plants including most plants traditionally described as dicots and generally characterized by
    • 2 seed leaves (dicotyledon)
    • Netted (reticulate) leaf venation
    • Flower parts in fours and fives
    • Pollen grains with 3 pores (tricolpate)
    • Vascular bundles in stem arranged in a ring
    • Taproot system
  • Deciduous shrubs or trees, some woody vines
  • Leaves
    • Usually alternate (1 leaf at each junction with stem)
      • In native California species, leaves are opposite (2 leaves at each junction with stem), e.g. California buckeye (Aesculus californica) and maples (Acer species)
    • Generally compound (divided into leaflets), e.g. California buckeye, or lobed, e.g. maples
  • Flowers
    • Inflorescence an arrangement of small flowers
    • Unisexual or bisexual; most often functionally unisexual (Carr 2006)
    • Radially or bilaterally symmetric
    • Prominent nectar disk between the petals and stamens (male flower parts)
    • Ovary superior (above the attachment of other flower parts)
  • Fruit is usually a winged schizocarp (a dry fruit that splits into 2 single-seeded segments) or a leathery, single-seeded capsule (a dry, multi-chambered fruit that splits open at maturity)


  • Approximately 1,500 species worldwide
    • Includes maple, lychee, and horse chestnut
    • Most species are tropical and subtropical
    • Temperate species mainly in the genera Acer (maples) and Aesculus (buckeye)
  • Many species contain toxic saponins, with soap-like qualities, in the foliage and/or seeds or roots
  • Scientific name from the genus Sapindus, from the Latin for “soap”
    • Species in this genus are commonly known as soapberries or soapnuts, as the fruit pulp, which contains saponins, can be used to make soap
  • Previously separated into 2 family groups: Maple (Aceraceae) and Horse Chestnut (Hippocastanaceae)
  • California buckeye (Aesculus californica) is the only representative of this family in Edgewood

See General References

Specific References

Carr, G. 2006. Sapindaceae. Flowering Plant Families. Department of Botany, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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