These perennials are endemic to Hawaiʻi, occurring only on the islands of Maui and Hawaiʻi in an extremely localized distribution.

They consist of rosette-forming epigeal shrubs or dwarf shrubs. They may consist of a single large rosette (Mauna Kea and Haleakalā silverswords), a short-branched rosette (Mauna Loa silversword), or spreading with runners (ʻEke silversword, greenswords). The flower heads consist of a ring of pistillate ray florets around 30 to 600 disk florets. The corolla varies in color from purplish to wine red or yellow, while the anthers are dark. A rosette will grow from 5–20 years before flowering, after which it dies. For those with a single rosette, this means the death of the plant (in contrast, those reproducing by runners rarely flower and may be very long-lived). Because they require cross-pollination by insects, many plants must flower at the same time in relatively close proximity or they will fail to set seed. A significant population must exist for enough to flower each year for pollination to occur.