Rough-leaved dogwood is an irregularly branched thicket-forming shrub or small, spreading tree.
Leaves are opposite, simple, 1–5 inches long, ½–2½ inches wide, conspicuously veined, lacking teeth, egg- to lance-shaped; upper surface olive green and rather rough-hairy above; lower surface paler with woolly, dense hairs; leaf stalk slender, rough-hairy, green to reddish. Leaves smell faintly like sour milk.
Bark is gray-brown with shallow grooves and short, thin plates.
Twigs are green and hairy when young, reddish-brown and smooth with age.
Flowers May–June, yellowish-white, borne in spreading, long-stalked clusters 1–3 inches across; flower stalks 1–2 inches long, hairy; petals 4, spreading, pointed at the tip.
Fruits August–October, globe-shaped, fleshy, 1–2 seeded, white, about ¼ inch wide, the style (small stalk) on tip of fruit persistent.
Similar species: Missouri has five species of dogwood. Rough-leaved is perhaps the most common species found in disturbed habitats and tolerates drier conditions than other dogwoods. This species can hybridize with other dogwoods, and one occasionally finds an individual plant or small colony (spread via root sprouts) with characteristics intermediate between the two parent species. These hybrids are usually sterile.