Not a very large family, most abundant in the northern hemisphere, mostly trees or shrubs. They have simple, mostly toothless leaves, without stipules, usually opposite or in whorls. The flowers are in round or flat-topped clusters and have four or five sepals and petals and four to many stamens. The inferior ovary becomes a stone-fruit that looks like a berry. Cornus is from the Greek for "horn," in allusion to the toughness of the wood.

There are many kinds of Cornus, some natives of Mexico and Peru, with small, white, greenish or purple flowers, in clusters, which often have an involucre of large, white bracts.