A small tree, 2 to 8 m tall, with characteristic horizontal branching, although in plantations it is usually pruned to take the form of a small shrub. Its leaves are evergreen and usually shiny.
The flowers are hermaphroditic and sweet-scented, the corolla white, tubular, normally with 5 lobes.
The fruits are usually red but sometimes yellow or purple at maturity. The outer layer is soft, edible and sweet-tasting, containing two or sometimes one 'seed' — actually a seed encased in a hard, almost crispy outer layer which together forms a structure known as a pyrene; this outer layer is removed by milling.
The seed itself is pale fawn or brown (dark brown only after roasting) and has a characteristic groove on its inner surface, which curls round inside the seed.