Small trees, shrubs, or subshrubs, sometimes climbers; monoecious, polygamous or dioecious. Leaves opposite, rarely whorled or alternate, simple, entire, toothed or lobed, petiolate; stipules absent. Inflorescences terminal, occasionally axillary, cymose, sometimes in corymbs, thyrses or panicles. Flowers bisexual or unisexual, fertile or sterile; sterile flowers with enlarged showy sepals; sepals 4–12, free or united at base, imbricate or valvate in bud; petals 4–12, fused or free, imbricate, valvate or convolute; stamens 4–numerous, free or united at base; ovary semi-inferior or inferior, 2–12-celled, ovules 2–many per cell, erect, horizontal or pendant, anatropous, style single, sometimes bifid, or free, stigma terminal or decurrent along style, sometimes capitate. Fruit a capsule, rarely a berry; seed ellipsoidal, fusiform, obovoid, urceolate, lageniform or horn-shaped.
17 genera with c. 220 species from the Americas, Pacific Islands, Asia and Europe, in temperate and subtropical regions; 2 genera and 2 species naturalised in Australia.