Rosa rugosa is a suckering shrub which develops new plants from the roots and forms dense thickets 1–1.50 m tall with stems densely covered in numerous short, straight prickles 3–10 mm long. The leaves are 8–15 cm long, pinnate with 5–9 leaflets, most often 7, each leaflet 3–4 cm long, with a distinctly corrugated (rugose, hence the species' name) surface. The leaf is elliptical in shape with a rounded base or broadly cuneate with a leather feel, dark green top. The back of the leaf is composed of a green-grey colour with hair along the veins. The leaf margin is composed of teeth along the edges and is crenate-serrate. The flower has five petals that are usually 6–9 cm in width. The flower is composed of 200–250 stamens per flow and vary in style. The flowers are pleasantly scented, dark pink to white (on R. rugosa f. alba (Ware) Rehder), 6–9 cm across, with somewhat wrinkled petals; flowering occurs in spring.
The edible hips, which resemble cherry tomatoes, are large, 2–3 cm diameter, and often shorter than their diameter, not elongated; in late summer and early autumn the plants often bear fruit and flowers at the same time. The leaves typically turn bright yellow before falling in autumn.