Dichrostachys cinerea is a semi-deciduous to deciduous tree characterised by bark on young branches, dark grey-brown fissures on older branches and stems and smooth on the spines. They typically grow up to 7 metres in height and have strong alternate thorns, generally up to 8 cm long. Flowers of the Dichrostachys cinerea are characteristically in bicoloured cylindrical spikes that resemble Chinese lanterns and are 6-8 cm long and fragrant. Upper flowers of a hanging spike are sterile, and are of a lilac or pale purple. Pods are usually a mustard brown and are generally twisted or spiralled and may be up to 100 x 15 mm. The species has can be subcategorized with 2 slight variations that have been recognised. D. cinerea ssp. africana and D. cinerea ssp. nyassana, the latter which is typically larger and less hairy in its foliage. 
The species tends to grow in rainforest zones that are clearly defined and in altitudes up to 2,000 metres.