Herbaceous or slightly woody twining vines with fleshy or woody rootstocks, slender stems, petioled, mostly cordate, several-nerved and reticulate-veined leaves, alternate or the lower opposite or verticillate, and small inconspicuous dioecious or monoecious (in some exotic genera perfect) regular flowers in spikes, racemes or panicles. Perianth 6-parted, that of the pistillate flowers persistent. Stami-nate flowers with,6 or 3 stamens, sometimes with a rudimentary ovary. Pistillate flowers with an inferior 3-celled ovary, 3 styles and 3 terminal stigmas, sometimes also with 3 or 6 staminodia; ovules 2 (rarely 1) in each cavity of the ovary, pendulous, anatropous or amphitropous. Fruit a 3-valved, 3-angled capsule in the following genus. Endosperm of the seed fleshy or cartilaginous, enclosing the small embryo.

About 9 genera and 175 species, mostly natives of America, a few in the Old World.