Shrubs or herbs with alternate or basal leaves, entire to pinnate. Flowers bisexual, in panicles, racemes or solitary. Perianth segments usually 6–18, rarely 0, free, usually in 3–6 whorls, the outer 2 whorls here regarded as sepals but sometimes interpreted as bracts or bracteoles, usually smaller and duller than the inner segments (petals); innermost petals usually with nectaries (these sometimes interpreted as staminodes); stamens 4–18 (usually 6), anthers usually opening via apically hinged valves; ovary 1-locular, with 1–many ovules; style short or stigma sessile. Fruit usually a berry, occasionally dry and indehiscent or dehiscent. Seeds often arillate.
About 650 species in 13 genera (mainly in Berberis and Mahonia) in temperate North and South America and Eurasia; 1 species naturalised in Australia.