Trees or shrubs (in Cassytha hemiparasitic twiners with reduced, scale-like leaves). Leaves alternate or opposite, occasionally subverticillate (alternate but crowded near the tip of each growth unit), without stipules, simple, entire, very rarely (in Sassafras and a few Lindera species) lobed, penninerved or triplinerved, in the majority of species evergreen, often coriaceous.
Inflorescences paniculate, thyrsoid, or with involucra of bracts surrounding umbels of several flowers (or rarely a single flower), rarely botryoid, spicate, almost capitate, or uniflorous.
Flowers small, (1-) 2-10 (-20) mm in diameter, mostly yellowish, greenish or white, rarely reddish, mostly trimerous, rarely dimerous, tetramerous or irregular, bisexual or unisexual (then plants dioecious, rarely gynodioecious). Tepals usually six = two whorls of three (T1, T2), mostly more or less equal, less frequently unequal, then usually outer whorl smaller.
♦ SEM micrograph of flower and flower details of Phoebe sheareri (Hemsl.) Gamble. Main image: flower, female phase, frontal view; A1 = stamens of androecial whorl 1; A2 = stamens of androecial whorl 2; A3 = stamens of androecial whorl 3; A4 = staminodes of androecial whorl 4; O = ovary; T1 = tepals of perianth whorl 1; T2 = tepals of perianth whorl 2. Small images: A: stamen of androecial whorl 3, abaxial side, with paired staminal glands (G); male phase = anther valves open, three of them lost during preparation, only the upper left flap preserved. B: stamen of androecial whorl 2, female phase = anther valves still closed. C: central part of flower, with ovary surrounded by the three staminodial glands of androecial whorl 4; note ventral slit in the style. D: staminodial gland of androecial whorl 4.
Fertile stamens most frequently nine (three whorls of three stamens each; A1, A2, A3), rarely 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 12 or up to ca. 30, usually the third whorl (A) with a pair of glands (G) at the base of the filaments, rarely all stamens with glands, glands absent, or confluent into a cushion-like structure. Anthers with two or four pollen sacs (very rarely fused into a single locule), opening by valves, usually from the base upwards, in the two outer whorls usually introrse, in the third whorl rather variable, most frequently extrorse in bisexual flowers, introrse in unisexual flowers. Fourth staminal whorl (A4) usually represented by staminodes (D), which often bear a glandular head.
Ovary unicarpellate, unilocular, usually superior (in Hypodaphnis inferior, in Eusideroxylon and Potoxylon semi-inferior), sometimes surrounded by the receptacle to completely enclosed in it, with a single, pendulous ovule.
Fruit a one-seeded berry (or drupe with rather weak endocarp), in most species black at maturity. Pedicel and receptacle in fruit scarcely enlarged to distinctly swollen, often reddish, frequently forming a fleshy or woody cupule subtending or surrounding the basal part of the berry, in some genera completely enclosing the ovary at maturity. Tepals in fruit deciduous or persistent, occasionally enlarged.