Eastern hop hornbeam is a small tree with wide, spreading branches.
Leaves are alternate, simple, blades 2½–4½ inches long, 1½–2½ inches wide, broadest at or below the middle; margin sharply and densely toothed; base often uneven; upper surface yellowish to dark green, dull; lower surface paler, hairy.
Bark thin, reddish gray, with narrow, platelike, tight scales; some trees with loose, shreddy scales.
Twigs usually slightly zigzag, hairy toward the tip, reddish brown to dark brown, pores small, not obvious.
Flowers in April–May, before the leaves, on male and female catkins and on the same twig.
Fruit in conelike clusters of overlapping, scalelike sacs, overall resembling hops (hence the name), 1½–2 inches long; each sac papery, white, and containing a single nut.