Catecholamine synthetic enzymes are found in many cranial parasympathetic principal neurons, and in the small intensely fluorescent (SIF) cells that populate parasympathetic as well as sympathetic ganglia. While there is evidence that the acquisition of noradrenergic properties in sympathetic neuron precursors depends on factors that these cells encounter in the trunk environment, the mechanisms that direct the development of noradrenergic traits in cranial parasympathetic neurons and SIF cells are not understood. The present study examines the time course of appearance of tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) immunoreactivity in the principal neurons and SIF cells of the rat sphenopalatine ganglion. We show that the sphenopalatine ganglion of normal adult rats contains both a small population of TH-immunoreactive principal neurons and many SIF cells. The TH-immunoreactive principal neurons do not synthesize or store detectable catecholamines, even though the majority of sphenopalatine ganglion neurons do contain 1-amino acid decarboxylase catalytic activity. Sphenopalatine ganglion principal neurons do not accumulate detectable levels of exogenous catecholamines. This observation suggests that they lack a high affinity norepinephrine uptake system. In contrast to what has been observed previously for sympathetic neurons, the appearance of TH immunoreactivity in sphenopalatine neurons is not temporally correlated with the cessation of neural crest cell migration. The first TH-immunoreactive neurons do not appear in the sphenopalatine ganglion until Embryonic Day 16.5, 2 days after the ganglion has condensed and process outgrowth has begun. The number of sphenopalatine neurons that express TH immunoreactivity increases dramatically between Embryonic Day 18.5 and Postnatal Day 1, but then decreases. In fact, the percentage of sphenopalatine neurons that express TH immunoreactivity is almost fivefold higher in newborn than in adult rats. SIF cells cannot be definitively identified in the sphenopalatine ganglion until after Embryonic Day 18.5. The time course of appearance of TH immunoreactivity in sphenopalatine ganglion cells raises the possibility that TH expression is stimulated in these cells by factors encountered either at their condensation site or at their target, such as glucocorticoids or nerve growth factor. The relatively late appearance of SIF cells in the sphenopalatine ganglion argues against the hypothesis that SIF cells are the precursors of all autonomic neurons.