The tree grows to 35 m (115 ft) tall, with an upright, symmetrical crown and horizontal branches. Terminalia catappa has corky, light fruit that are dispersed by water. The seed within the fruit is edible when fully ripe, tasting almost like almond. As the tree gets older, its crown becomes more flattened to form a spreading, vase shape. Its branches are distinctively arranged in tiers. The leaves are large, 15–25 cm (5.9–9.8 in) long and 10–14 cm (3.9–5.5 in) broad, ovoid, glossy dark green, and leathery. They are dry-season deciduous; before falling, they turn pinkish-reddish or yellow-brown, due to pigments such as violaxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin.
The trees are monoecious, with distinct male and female flowers on the same tree. Both are 1 cm (0.39 in) in diameter, white to greenish, inconspicuous with no petals; they are produced on axillary or terminal spikes. The fruit is a drupe 5–7 cm (2.0–2.8 in) long and 3–5.5 cm (1.2–2.2 in) broad, green at first, then yellow and finally red when ripe, containing a single seed.