Herbs, usually perennial or sometimes biennial, sometimes subshrubs, cauliferous or stemless, often with woody caudex. Capitulum solitary or to very numerous and in a corymbiform, hemispheric, paniculiform, or racemiform synflorescence, sessile or pedunculate. Involucre campanulate, globose, ovoid, cylindric, or tubular. Phyllaries imbricate, sometimes with an apical appendage. Receptacle flat or convex, usually with subulate bristles or sometimes with short papillae, rarely naked. Corolla usually purple, often bluish or reddish, sometimes brownish, blackish, or pink, rarely white, usually glabrous, sometimes with sessile glands or papillae. Anthers dark purple, dark blue, or black; anther tails sagittate, entire, lacerate, or lanate. Achene straw-colored, sometimes with black spots, brown or black, ± ribbed, smooth or transversely wrinkled, usually glabrous, rarely with glands, papillae, or hairs; apical rim inconspicuous, entire or sometimes forming a short crown. Pappus in 2 rows, heteromorphic, dirty white, yellowish, straw-colored, brown, dark gray, or black; outer bristles usually more numerous and shorter than inner ones, often of different lengths, scabrid, very rarely barbellate or plumose, individually caducous, very rarely lacking; inner bristles fewer and longer than outer ones, usually of same length, basally connate into a ring, always plumose, caducous or persistent.
About 415 species: Asia, C, E, and N Europe, W North America; 289 species (191 endemic) in China.
By far, the greatest diversity of the genus is in high mountains of temperate Asia, particularly in Siberia, C Asia, the Himalaya, and the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau. In China, the Hengduan Shan area is the center of diversity of Saussurea, with more than one hundred species, many of them endemic.
The taxonomy of the genus Saussurea in this treatment follows largely the monograph by Lipschitz (Rod Saussurea, 1-284. 1979), although it is quite clear that his infrageneric taxa do not represent natural groups. Despite some recent attempts to clarify the evolution of Saussurea, also with the help of molecular methods (Raab-Straube, Willdenowia 33: 379-402. 2003; Kita et al., Taxon 53: 679-690. 2004; Y. J. Wang & J. Q. Liu, Biochem. Syst. Ecol. 32: 1009-1023. 2004; Y. J. Wang et al., Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 97: 893-903. 2009), a well-supported phylogeny of the whole genus is still lacking. Therefore, and because of the pragmatic need to subdivide the large genus into manageable and recognizable groups, we still adopt to a large extent the infrageneric subdivision by Lipschitz, keeping in mind that this classification is a highly artificial one. However, those species placed by him in Saussurea, which are now thought to belong to Aucklandia, Frolovia, and Himalaiella (see Raab-Straube, loc. cit.), are excluded from this treatment and can be found under the respective segregate genera. Saussurea is divided here into four subgenera: S. subg. Eriocoryne, S. subg. Amphilaena, S. subg. Theodorea, and S. subg. Saussurea. Saussurea subg. Saussurea is further divided into eight sections: S. sect. Jurineiformes, S. sect. Jacea, S. sect. Gymnocline, S. sect. Laguranthera, S. sect. Lagurostemon, S. sect. Strictae, S. sect. Rosulascentes, and S. sect. Saussurea. Some of the sectional names used by Lipschitz have to be replaced by older ones that have priority at this rank.
Many Saussurea species are used medicinally, as for example: S. arenaria, S. epilobioides, S. involucrata, S. laniceps, S. leucoma, S. medusa, S. obvallata, and S. stella. Some of them are collected and marketed in large quantities and need strong protection in their natural habitats.