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They are mostly mesophytic trees and shrubs; a few are lianas or subherbaceous. Their leathery, evergreen leaves are simple and alternate, with smooth margins and without stipules. They are often dotted with glands and resinous cavities. The latter may take the form of secretory lines.
The plants are mostly monoecious, but a few are dioecious. The small flowers are arranged in racemose terminal clusters, or in the leaf axils. The flowers have four or five sepals and petals. The floral envelope (perianth) has a distinct calyx and corolla. The calyx is regular and polysepalous. The nonfleshy petals of the corolla are more or less united, closely overlapping. The four or five stamens are usually isomerous with the perianth. The carpel has one style and one stigma, with the ovary unilocular, superior or semi-inferior.
North American species are the marlberry (Ardisia escalloniodes) and the Florida rapanea (Rapanea punctata).
Plants in the myrsine family have few economic uses. A few genera, such as Ardisia, Cyclamen, Lysimachia, and Myrsine, are grown as ornamental plants, especially Ardisia crispa and Myrsine africana. One species, Ardisia japonica (Chinese: 紫金牛; pinyin: zǐjīn niú), is one of the 50 fundamental herbs in traditional Chinese medicine.
The following genera, traditionally categorized in Primulaceae sensu lata, should, according to Källersjö et al. (2000), belong to the clade of Myrsinaceae s. l.: Anagallis, Ardisiandra, Asterolinon, Coris, Cyclamen, Glaux, Lysimachia, Pelletiera and Trientalis.