Description from Flora of China
Trees or shrubs (Cassytha a twining parasitic perennial herb with leaves reduced or absent), mostly evergreen (deciduous in temperate regions), sometimes dioecious. Bark and foliage usually aromatic. Leaves usually alternate, occasionally opposite or subopposite or verticillate, simple, usually entire, rarely lobed (Sassafras), mostly pinninerved and subpalmately veined, or often triplinerved, usually punctate and leathery, estipulate. Flowers in usually axillary, occasionally subterminal, panicles, spikes, racemes, or pseudoumbels, generally bisexual, sometimes unisexual, actinomorphic, mostly 3-merous, also 2-merous, small, greenish, yellowish, or white. Perianth biseriate, of usually 4 or 6 basally connate usually undifferentiated sepal-like segments, deciduous or persistent; perianth tube usually persisting as a cupule at base of fruit. Androecium typically of 4 whorls of 3 stamens each, adnate to perianth tube, innermost whorl rarely united, usually reduced to staminodes; filaments usually free, 3rd whorl usually bearing 2 usually sessile and distinct basal glandular protuberances; anthers basifixed, 2-celled or 4-celled at anthesis, those of 2 outer whorls mostly introrse, inner 3rd whorl extrorse, dehiscing by flaplike valves opening upward. Pistil 1; ovary usually superior, 1-loculed; ovule solitary, anatropous, pendulous, placentation parietal; style 1; stigma 1, occasionally 2- or 3-lobed. Fruit a drupe or berry usually surrounded at base by enlarged and often persistent perianth tube seated on a large receptacle or pedicel. Seed with large straight embryo; endosperm absent.
The Lauraceae are economically important as sources of medicine, timber, nutritious fruits (e.g., Persea americana), spices (e.g., Cinnamomum cassia, C. subavenium, Laurus nobilis), and perfumes. The fruits of Actinodaphne, Cinnamomum, Cryptocarya, Lindera, Litsea, and Syndiclis contain abundant oil and fat. Cinnamomum trees, such as Cinnamomum camphora, C. glanduliferum, and C. parthenoxylon, yield camphor and essential oil, which are used for making perfumes and medicines. The bark of C. cassia and the roots of Lindera aggregata are famous traditional Chinese medicines.
The Chinese species of Lauraceae remain poorly known and difficult to identify. The main reason for this is that for a substantial number of species the fruits or flowers are not known. This makes generic placement of such species uncertain, since most genera are defined by floral characters. A second problem is that characters of both flowers and fruits are used in most generic keys and since specimens almost never bear both flowers and fruits, identification is often almost impossible. A drastic remedy for this problem would be to make keys based on flowering specimens and list species known only with fruits as incompletely known species and not include them in the keys. This approach has not been followed in this treatment.
The genera are here maintained as they have been recognized in earlier works on Chinese Lauraceae. The present authors are aware that this will seem inconsistent; for instance, in the case of Sassafras, species with 2-celled and 4-celled anthers are included in the same genus, while in other cases pairs of genera are separated based on this character (for example Lindera-Litsea, Alseodaphne-Nothaphoebe, and Parasassafras-Sinosassafras). Generic boundaries in the Litsea group (Actinodaphne, Dodecadenia, Iteadaphne, Lindera, Litsea, Neolitsea, Parasassafras, and Sinosassafras) are not well defined, and generic concepts are likely to change after further research.
Aside from these problems, there are a number of vegetative characters that are helpful in the identification process. They are listed below.
Leaves opposite or subopposite: Beilschmiedia p.p., Caryodaphnopsis, Cinnamomum p.p.
Leaves verticillate or clustered: Actinodaphne, Neolitsea; rarely in Lindera (L. megaphylla) and Litsea (L. verticillata); weakly clustered in Alseodaphne, Dehaasia, Machilus, Phoebe.
Leaves triplinerved and alternate: Cinnamomum p.p., Cryptocarya p.p., Lindera p.p., Neocinnamomum.
Leaves triplinerved and clustered: Neolitsea.
Leaves triplinerved and opposite: Caryodaphnopsis, Cinnamomum p.p.
Leaves lobed: Lindera p.p., Sassafras.
Leaves with tufts of hairs in axils of lateral veins: Cinnamomum p.p.
The three genera Machilus, Persea, and Phoebe cannot be identified adequately by floral characters; they have been separated traditionally on the fruit characters listed in the key.
Li Hsi-wen et al. 1982. Lauraceae. In: Li Hsi-wen, ed., Fl. Reipubl. Popularis Sin. 31: 1-463.
One of the present authors (van der Werff) provides this alternative key to genera. Nothaphoebe is deliberately not included; see the comment under that genus (p. 200).
About 45 genera and 2000-2500 species: tropical and subtropical regions but mostly in tropical SE Asia and tropical America; 25 genera (two endemic, two introduced) and 445 species (316 endemic, three introduced) in China; two additional species (one endemic) are of uncertain placement.
(Authors: Li Xiwen (李锡文 Li Hsi-wen), Li Jie (李捷), Huang Puhua (黄普华 Huang Pu-hwa), Wei Fa’nan (韦发南), Cui Hongbin (崔鸿宾 Tsui Hung-pin); Henk van der Werff)