It is an evergreen shrub growing to 4 m tall, with dry-looking stick-like branches. The leaves are small, 4–10 mm long and 1 mm broad with a pointed apex, and sprout in clusters from the branches. These clusters are known as fascicles, and give the species its Latin name. The leaves are shiny with flammable oils, especially in warmer weather. The branches terminate in bunches of white tubular flowers 5 mm diameter, with five petals and long stamens. The fruit is a dry achene.
There are two varieties which differ from each other in minor characters; they are not accepted as distinct by all authors:
It is very drought tolerant and adaptable, with the ability to grow in nutrient-poor, barren soil and on dry, rocky outcrops. It can be found in serpentine soils, which are generally inhospitable to most plants, as well as in slate, sand, clay, and gravel soils. Chaparral habitats are known for their fierce periodical wildfires, and like other chaparral flora, chamise dries out, burns, and recovers quickly to thrive once again. It is a plant that controls erosion well, sprouting from ground level in low basal crowns that remain after fires, preventing the bare soil from being washed away.
The oily leaves give rise to the common name greasewood; however, the species Sarcobatus vermiculatus is more appropriately called by that name.
Chamise grows in dense, monotypic stands that cover the dry hills of coastal California. These thickets of chamise are called chamissal. The plant also mixes with other flora of the biome, such as manzanita and toyon.