It is an evergreen shrub or small tree growing to 3-15 m tall. The bark is blackish-brown, The leaves are alternate, oval, 7–12 cm long and 3–5 cm broad, with an acute apex and a dentate margin, glossy dark green above, lighter below. They superficially resemble those of the Bay Laurel, which accounts for its often being mistaken for one. The flowers are small (10-15 mm diameter) with five small white petals; they are produced on erect or spreading spikes 15–25 cm long in late spring. The fruit is a small cherry-like drupe 8–13 mm in diameter, green or reddish green at first, turning dark purple or black when ripe in late summer or early autumn.
It is rare in the wild, occurring mainly along mountain streams, preferring sunshine and moist but well-drained soils. It is moderately drought-tolerant. It reproduces either sexually (the most successful method) or asexually by cloning from shoots.
Three subspecies are accepted: