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The Lecythidaceae are a pantropical family of trees found in the tropics of Central and South America, southeast Asia, and Africa, including Madagascar. The family is divided into three subfamilies, the Planchonioideae, with six genera, the best known of which is Barringtonia, and 59 species in tropical Asia, Malaysia, northern Australia, the Pacific Islands, and Madagascar; the Foetidioideae, with a single genus, Foetidia, and 17 species in Madagascar, Mauritius, and East Africa; and the Lecythidoideae of the Western Hemisphere.
Two other closely related families, the Napoleonaeaceae and the Scytopetalaceae, were previously considered subfamilies of the Lecythidaceae but they are now treated as closely related families. One South American species, Asteranthos brasiliensis, was at one time placed in the Napoleonaeaceae, but embryological, morphological, and molecular evidence demonstrate that it has a stronger relationship with the Scytopetalaceae.
According to the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG), the Brazil nut family belongs to the order Ericales which is basal to the euasterid clade. Within the Ericales, the position of the Lecythidaceae is not resolved. For more information about this family of tropical trees see The Lecythidaceae Pages.
Species of the Brazil nut family in the New World range from Veracruz, Mexico (Eschweilera mexicana) to Paraguay (Cariniana estrellensis); the Caribbean is home only to Grias cauliflora which occurs in Jamaica and Central America from Belize and Guatemala to northwestern Colombia; and several species of Eschweilera grow in Trinidad and Tobago, but these islands harbor a South American, not a Caribbean, flora.
The Brazil nut is the economically most important species of Lecythidaceae. Brazil nuts are gathered only from Bertholletia excelsa, a species of non-flooded forest native to Guyana, Surinam, and Amazonian Colombia, Venezuela , Peru , Bolivia, and Brazil . Another species, the cannon-ball tree is cultivated as a botanical curiosity in tropical gardens because of its showy, aromatic flowers and cannon ball like fruits that arise profusely from the main trunk. There are two other species of Couroupita, C. nicaraguarensis and C. subsessilis that are also called cannon ball trees, but these species are not cultivated. Some species, especially in the genus Cariniana, yield valuable timbers.