A medium to large tree up to 80 feet tall, with a long, smooth trunk supporting a wide, spreading crown.
Leaves alternate, simple, 3–6 inches long, 1½-3 inches wide, thin with a papery texture, broadest at or below the middle, the margin coarsely toothed, the upper surface dull bluish green, shiny; lower surface yellow-green; persisting on younger trees through winter.
Bark distinctive: light- to steel-gray, smooth.
Twigs slender, somewhat zigzagged, green and hairy at first, later reddish brown or gray and smooth; buds slender, ¾-1 inch long, sharp pointed.
Flowers April–May. Male and female flowers are separate on the same twig. Male flowers in rounded clusters, about 1 inch across, hanging on stalks. Female flowers in pairs, on stout spikes about 1 inch long, usually on twig tips.
Fruit has burlike, prickly husk, ½–¾ inch long; nuts 2, edible.