The plant is a small to medium-sized deciduous shrub, 2–3 metres (6+1⁄2–10 feet) tall. The leaves are green, semi-leathery, with 3 or 5 lobes, and turn red in autumn.
The plant blooms in spring with racemes of conspicuous golden yellow flowers, often with a pronounced, spicy fragrance similar to that of cloves or vanilla. Flowers may also be shades of cream to reddish, and are borne in clusters of up to 15. The shrub produces berries about 1 centimetre (3⁄8 inch) in diameter from an early age. The ripe fruits are amber yellow to black. Those of variety villosum are black.