Shrubs or trees, deciduous to tardily deciduous, 2–15 m. Bark gray tinged with pink (somewhat fissured and roughened with warty excrescences). Branches arching upward; branchlets brown. Winter buds 8–12 mm; scales deltate, ciliate, apex acute, glabrous or pilose. Leaves: petiole 8–12 mm; blade elliptic to oblong or oblanceolate, 5.5–12(–15) × 2–6(–7.5) cm, subcoriaceous, base acute, margins usually obscurely crenulate-serrulate, sometimes nearly entire, surfaces abaxially whitish green, pubescent, adaxially green, glabrous or pubescent, midvein raised to prominent adaxially. Inflorescences axillary fascicles, from leaf axils of previous year, 6–14-flowered. Flowers enclosed in bud by orange-colored scales, appearing before leaves; corolla yellow to creamy white, lobes 6–8 mm; anthers orange; ovary incompletely 3-locular; ovules 2 per carpel; disc glabrous; style 5–6 mm. Drupes dark orange to brown, cylindric-ellipsoid, 10–14 mm, glabrous. Seeds ovoid. 2n = 28.
Phenology: Flowering early Mar–May.
Habitat: Moist mixed-deciduous hardwoods to dry pine-oak woods, rocky summits or ravines, hammocks, maritime forests, moist to wet pine barrens and flatwoods, streamheads and baygalls, creek swamps and bottomlands
Elevation: 0-1400 m
Ala., Ark., Del., Fla., Ga., La., Md., Miss., N.C., Okla., S.C., Tenn., Tex., Va.
Symplocos tinctoria exhibits variation in stature, leaf size, and indument that has been used to recognize infraspecific taxa: var. tinctoria represented the tardily deciduous, glabrous or sparsely pubescent, large-leafed populations that are common in the Atlantic coastal plain; var. ashei was described to accommodate the early-deciduous, pubescent populations centered in the southern Appalachians; and var. pygmaea was described as a small-leafed dwarf form thought to be restricted to southeastern Virginia. In recognizing no infraspecific taxa we here follow J. W. Hardin (1966), who showed that all of the above features vary randomly throughout the range or show clinal variation with intermediate populations.
According to C. E. Wood Jr. and R. B. Channell (1960), A. Brand (1901) considered Symplocos tinctoria to be near S. japonica A. de Candolle and S. setchuensis Brand (both = S. theifolia D. Don) as the only American species of the otherwise Asian subgenus Hopea (Linnaeus) C. B. Clarke, whereas H. Handel-Mazzetti and E. Peter-Stibal (1943) excluded S. tinctoria from that subgenus and suggested that its relations be sought among the New World species. Among the species sampled for DNA sequence data, S. wikstroemiifolia Hayata, distributed from southern China to peninsular Malaysia, is unequivocally placed as sister to S. tinctoria, and this clade is sister to an exclusively New World clade (Wang Y. et al. 2004; P. W. Fritsch et al. 2006). The entire group is recognized as [subgenus Symplocos] sect. Barberina A. de Candolle (P. W. Fritsch et al. 2008).
The leaves of this species are somewhat sweet tasting and sought after by cattle, horses, and browsers such as white-tailed deer. The leaves and bark are a source of yellow dye and the bitter aromatic roots have been used as a tonic (C. S. Sargent 1922).