For the last 20 years, the development and improvement of molecular methods, based mostly on the comparison of DNA sequences, have been increasingly successful in reconstructing the phylogenetic tree of plants at all hierarchical levels. Consequently, they have contributed greatly to the recent improvement of angiosperm systematics. In addition, they have shown that earlier classifications, based mostly on plant vegetative and reproductive structures, had sometimes been misled by homoplastic characters, and a number of orders and families have had to be newly circumscribed or even newly established (e.g. APG, 1998, 2003, 2009; Stevens, 2001 onwards). These new results provide a novel basis for comparative structural studies to characterize the newly recognized clades and to evaluate clades that have only limited molecular support. However, because such comparative studies are time-consuming and the systematic classification has different hierarchical levels, they can only be done in a stepwise fashion (for eudicots, e.g. Matthews and Endress, 2002, 2004, 2005a, b, 2006, 2008; von Balthazar et al., 2004; Schönenberger and Grenhagen, 2005; Endress and Matthews, 2006; Ronse De Craene and Haston, 2006; von Balthazar et al., 2006; Bachelier and Endress, 2008, 2009; Janka et al., 2008; Schönenberger, 2009; von Balthazar and Schönenberger, 2009; Schönenberger et al., 2010).
As part of such a comparative approach, we studied the floral structure of Nitrariaceae, a small family which has been recently reclassified in Sapindales (APG, 2009). Nitrariaceae comprise four genera and around 15 species (Stevens, 2001 onwards; APG, 2009). They are native to arid and semi-arid regions of the Old World and are small to medium-sized shrubs (Nitraria; Engler, 1896a, b; Bobrov, 1965; Noble and Whalley, 1978), perennial herbs (Peganum and Malacocarpus; Engler, 1896a, 1931; El Hadidi, 1975) or small annual herbs of only a few centimetres height (Tetradiclis; Engler, 1896b, 1931; Hamzaoglu et al., 2005). In earlier classifications, the position and the mutual affinities of these genera varied tremendously, depending on the weight an author gave either to their vegetative or their reproductive features (Takhtajan, 1969, 1980, 1983, 2009; El Hadidi, 1975; Dahlgren, 1980; Cronquist, 1981, 1988; see Sheahan and Chase, 1996 for a detailed review of classifications). Because none of the traditional classifications was entirely satisfactory, however, most authors followed Engler’s influential work (1896a, b, 1931) and Nitraria, Tetradiclis and Peganum (including Malacocarpus) remained for a long time in their own subfamilies in Zygophyllaceae (Nitrarioideae, Tetradiclidoideae and Peganoideae; for more details of the history of classification, see Sheahan and Chase, 1996).