It is a deciduous shrub, irregular in shape, 0.3–3 m (rarely 4 m) high and possibly somewhat wider. The bark is glabrous and copper-tinted black. The leaves are alternate, 2–7 cm long and 1–3.5 cm broad, oval to obovate, acuminate with irregularly serrate margins, rugose, dark green, pubescent above and tomentose below, with glandular petioles. The flowers are white or pink in a scarlet calyx, opening with or before the leaves in spring. They are reliably profuse, arranged in clusters on scarlet pedicels and are 1.5–2.0 cm in diameter. The fruit is a sweet but slightly tart drupe 5–12 mm (rarely to 25 mm) in diameter, scarlet, ripening in early summer, with a large seed. Though often called a "cherry" and superficially resembling them, Nanking cherry is closer related to plums than true cherries. It prefers full sun and grows naturally in a variety of soils. It is drought-resistant, and cold-resistant to hardiness zone 2.