Stems solitary or clustered and then with few shoots, to 30 m tall, to 50 cm in diam., rough with persistent, diamond-shaped leaf bases. Leaves 3-5 m; sheath and petiole to 1 m; rachis 1-2 m; acanthophylls many per side of rachis; pinnae to 200 per side of rachis, linear, irregularly arranged and spreading in different planes; middle pinnae to 40 × 2 cm. Male inflorescences erect, to 1 m, with many rachillae, these ca. 30 cm; female inflorescences erect, becoming pendulous, to 2 m, with to 150 rachillae, these to 40 cm. Fruits variable in shape, usually oblong, to 7 × 3 cm, brown or black; endosperm homogeneous.
Solitary tree, 30 m or more, suckers producing offsets (frequently removed) and roots present at base. Crown large, open, leaves larger than Phoenix sylvestris, glabrous, 1-5.1 m long, leaflet in many planes, 20-40 x 2-2.5 cm; pinnae strongly keeled; apex hard, spiny. Lower leaflets transformed into spines, 4-ranked or the upper ones 2-ranked, 10-20 cm long, apex yellowish. Inflorescence covered by a hard, boat-like bract. Female inflorescence 90-120 cm long, main stalk flat, 45-75 cm long, glabrous, rachilla 30 cm or so long, spikelets numerous. Flowers rounded, green, distant. Calyx lobes 3, united at the base, forming a cup-like structure, upper portion thin and translucent, lower one hard, greenish. Sepals c. 4 x 2 mm, petals more than two times larger than the sepals, rounded. Male inflorescence much smaller, 12-25 cm long, sometimes larger, main stalk 60-90 cm long, flat, glabrous, rachilla arises from and near the apex of the main stalk. Flowers sessile, white, sweet-scented, much larger than the female flower, stamens 6, c. 4 mm long, anthers erect, filaments short, subulate; pistillodes minute, three, scale-like. Petals 3-lobed, valvate, 7-8 mm long; sepals 3-lobed, much smaller than the petals, united, forming a cup. Fruit cylindric, 2.5-5.0 x 1-1.5 cm broad, edible, fleshy, yellowish-brown to reddish brown. Seeds stony, acute at the apex, longitudinally grooved from one side.
Characteristic tall, straight trunk, clothed rather persistent leaf-bases, and head of stiff fronds
Crown of mature individuals with 50 or more green leaves. Leaf to 3 m. or more long with rather stiff rachis and petiole only slightly arcuate; true petiole to 20 cm. only, with coarse brown sacking-like sheath; apparent petiole 50-100 cm., armed with acanthophylls; acantho-phylls to 15 cm. long by 4 mm. wide, aligned in various directions; leaflets about 80 on each side of the rachis, stiff, moderately regular, sometimes slightly fanned, tending to point distally as opposed to being inserted at right-angles, dull glaucous green in colour, to 30 × 2 cm.
Male inflorescence large; peduncle to 60 cm. or more; prophyll ± 45 cm. by 10 cm. wide, brown furfuraceous when young; rachillae numerous to 30 cm. or more, with staminate flowers in scattered groups or singly.
Male flower somewhat asymmetrical, rather obtuse at the tip, not acuminate; calyx to 2 mm. long; petals cream, fleshy, to 8 mm. long, 3 mm. wide; pistillode minute.
Solitary or sparsely clustering palm, never thicket-forming, with massive erect trunk 40–50 cm. in diameter, ultimately to ± 20 m. tall, but rarely reaching more that 8 m. in East Africa.
Trunk dull brown, conspicuously marked with leaf-sheath scars and short bases; leaf-bases ± 25–30 cm. wide and 10 cm. high.
Fruit very variable, 4–7 cm. long by 2–3 cm. wide, varying from yellow to orangey brown, to deep chestnut or almost black in colour, with mesocarp varying from thick, sweet and juicy to thin and dry.
Seed similarly variable, ± 2.4 cm. long by 0.6–0.8 cm. wide, with conspicuous longitudinal furrow; embryo lateral.
Female inflorescence as the ♂, but the peduncle greatly elongating after anthesis, pendulous; rachillae to 40 cm. long by 3 mm. wide.