Perennial herbs with an underground corm or rhizome; stems rarely lignescent (Kuntheria). Roots sometimes tuberous (Burchardia). Stem erect, leafy, simple or branching, sometimes scandent or scapose, or reduced to a short underground portion. Leaves distichous, cauline, alternate, or subopposite to verticillate or almost radical, sessile and often sheathing, or shortly pseudopetiolate (Kuntheria, Disporum sp.); blades dorsiventral (bifacial), ovate or lanceolate to linear or subulate, sometimes cuspidate or cirrhose, parallel-veined with often distinct midrib, in broad leaves ± arching and rarely with additional reticulate venation. Flowers hypogynous, bisexual or seldom unisexual (Wurmbea spp.), sessile or pedicellate, actinomorphic or somewhat zygomorphic, in terminal racemes or cymes, sometimes umbellate, capitate or solitary, with or without bracts; tepals 6 (rarely 7-12), equal or somewhat unequal, connate for some length or free from the base, sometimes spotted or variegated, usually with perigonal or androecial nectaries, caducous or persistent. Stamens 6, dorsifixed (often hypopeltate), extrorse or sometimes latrorse to introrse, dehiscing by longitudinal slits, versatile or not; thecae 2, elongate. Gynoecium tricarpellary (occasionally 2 or 4 carpels), completely or partly syncarpous; ovary trilocular with few to many anatropous or campylotropous ovules on axile placentas; carpels ending in free or partly united styluli, or fused into a single style; fruit usually a dry or somewhat fleshy septicidal or loculicidal capsule (or both), rarely baccate (Disporum); seeds subglobose or ovoid to subangular, with or without a dry strophiole or fleshy aril; embryo linear, straight.
The Colchicaceae are distributed in temperate to tropical regions mainly of the Old World. The wurmbaeoid genera occur in winter rainfall areas and subtropical to tropical regions of Africa, the Mediterranean and Asia. They have a pronounced centre in southern Africa, where a dozen genera are represented. Wurmbea provides an interesting phyto-geographical link between Africa and Australia, being equally well represented in both continents and nowhere else. The distribution of Iphigenia is to some extent comparable, but less widely disjunct with occurrences also in Madagascar, Socotra and India. Interestingly, its close relative Camptorrhiza occurs only in S Africa and India. The uvularioid genera, on the other hand, are concentrated in forest regions of SE Asia and Australia, with a centre in Australian rainforest areas. The only genus in the New World, viz. Uvularia, is an example of the phyto-geographical link between eastern N America and E Australasia, where the related genera occur.
Two genera are especially well known in horticulture, viz. autumn-flowering Colchicum and the splendid Gloriosa. However, also Androcymbium, Baeometra, Littonia, Sandersonia and Uvularia are sometimes grown, preferably in greenhouses, but also outdoors in suitable climates. The highly toxic alkaloids of most genera cause considerable losses to livestock, but they are also used in medicine, pharmacology and laborative biology, as mentioned above. The industrial demand has been increasing in recent years, the main supply being derived from wild or cultivated species of Colchicum, Iphigenia and Gloriosa. The statement by Krause (1930: 241) that corms of Gloriosa, Littonia and Sandersonia were used as food by native African people seems doubtful in view of the toxicity. However, Gloriosa and Iphigenia corms are locally used for medicinal purposes, but also reputedly for suicide and homicide (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk 1962). Fatal accidents by confusion with yams have been reported from Sri Lanka. Young shoots and corms of Uvularia are sometimes used for nutrition in North America.
With kind permission from Springer Science+Business Media: This work is subject to copyright. All rights reserved, whether whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, broadcasting reproduction on microfilm or in any other way, and storage in data banks. Duplication of this publication or parts thereof is permitted only under the provisions of the German Copyright Law of September 9, 1965, in its current version, and permission for use must always be obtained from Springer-Verlag. Violations are liable for prosecution under German Copyright Law.All Rights Reserved