Perennial, short stemmed herbs, often rhizomatous, occasionally epiphytic; dioecious, gynodioecious or hermaphroditic (Milligania). Leaves spirally arranged, with open or closed sheaths and linear to lanceolate laminas, usually densely pubescent, at least when young, sometimes whitish to silvery, woolly, especially on the broadened base. Inflorescences terminal, composed of racemes, few-flowered in some spp., sometimes densely covered with silky-woolly, whitish to silvery hairs. Flowers trimerous or up to heptamerous, pedicellate without articulation to sessile, actinoniorphic, pentacyclic. Tepals in 2 whorls, free or basally fused, membranous and bractlike or fleshy. Stamens 6, filaments free or basally adnate to tepals in Milligania. Anthers dorsifixed to basifixed, longitudinally dehiscent, introrse; female flowers with staminodes. Ovary superior, 3(-7)-carpellate, trilocular with axile placentation, or rarely (in Astelia section Astelia) unilocular with parietal placentation; mucilagesecreting intraovarian trichomes often present (Astelia, Collospermum); septal nectaries present; ovules several per locule, anatropous, funicles hairy in some species; styluli short (Milligania) or lacking; stigmas usually (sub-)sessile, sometimes confluent; male flowers with pistillodes, or sometimes bearing (sub-)fertile ovules. Fruit a berry, or capsule in Milligania, few-to many-seeded. Seeds more or less ovate, often angular, sometimes embedded in mucilaginous hairs; testa hard, black; endosperm abundant.
A family of four genera and about 35 spp. from Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, Mauritius, Reunion and southern S America.
Apart from several species of Astelia on the Hawaiian archipelago, Asteliaceae is an entirely southern hemisphere family. Milligania is endemic to Tasmania. Collospermum occurs in New Zealand, Fiji and Samoa. Neoastelia is a monotypic segregate from Astelia, endemic to NE New South Wales. Astelia has the widest distribution, ranging from subantarctic islands to New Zealand, Australia, New Guinea, Pacific islands, Mascarenes, Chile and Hawaii. It was presumably dispersed to Hawaii by birds, as it has attractive fruits (in common wjth a relatively high proportion of the Hawaiian flora).
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