It is a prolific scrub-type tree and is often one of the first species to regenerate on cleared land. It is typically a shrub growing to 2–5m tall, but can grow into a moderately sized tree, up to 15m. It is evergreen, with dense branching and small leaves, with a short spine tip. The flowers are white, occasionally pink, 8–15 mm in diameter, with five petals. The wood is tough and hard.
This species is often confused with the related species kānuka (Kunzea ericoides) – the easiest way to tell the difference between the two species in the field is to feel their foliage – mānuka leaves are prickly, while kānuka leaves are soft. Alternatively, the seed capsules of mānuka are large (5-7mm in diameter) and often remain on the plant year round, whereas the seed capsules of kānuka are much smaller (2.2-4.6mm in diameter) and are not present for much of the year.