This hardy endemic shrub is very common throughout New Zealand in shrubland and open forest. It usually grows about one metre tall, and is divaricate: it has tough, spiky shoots with tightly interlaced twigs that protect its tiny leaves. This structure is thought to have developed as a defence tactic against frosty, windy environments, and browsing moa.
It has small, creamy-coloured flowers that are wind pollinated. The female flowers produce fleshy, globular red fruit, three to four millimetres in diameter, from March to April. They darken to black on the bush, and are eaten by birds such as kereru, tuī, korimako and weka, as well as geckos and skinks.
The name ‘Coprosma’ is drawn from the Greek word kopros, which means dung, and osme, which means odour—because of the awful smell of the leaves of some species when they are crushed. Coprosma rhamnoides, however, has no unpleasant smell; the second part of its name means ‘resembling buckthorn’.