It grows in the cooler and moist areas of the northern temperate region of South-East Asia, China, Japan, and in South America. It is a large deciduous alder with silver-gray bark that reaches up to 30 m in height and 60 cm in diameter. The leaves are alternate, simple, shallowly toothed, with prominent veins parallel to each other, 7–16 cm long and 5–10 cm broad. The flowers are catkins, with the male and female flowers separate but produced on the same tree. The male flowers are 10 to 25 cm (4 to 10 in) long and pendulous, while the female flowers are erect, 1 to 2 cm (0.4 to 0.8 in), with up to eight together in axillary racemes. Unusually for an alder, they are produced in the autumn, with the seeds maturing the following year. It grows best on deep volcanic loamy soils, but also grows on clay, sand and gravel. It tolerates a wide variety of soil types and grows well in very wet areas. It needs plenty of moisture in the soil and prefers streamside locations, but also grows on slopes.
The tree grows quickly and is sometimes planted as erosion control on hillsides and for land recovery in shifting cultivation. It has nodules on the roots which fix nitrogen. The wood is moderately soft. It is occasionally used for making boxes and in light construction but is mainly used as firewood, when it burns evenly but rather rapidly, and for making charcoal. Seeds ripen from November to March depending on geographical locality. The fruits, which superficially resemble cones of the pine family, are dark brown, upright on short stalks, elliptical, and composed of many spreading, hard woody scales. Empty cones may persist on the tree. The seeds are light brown, circular and flat with two broad membranous wings, more than 2 mm across.
The bark and leaves are used to make medicine. People take black alder for bleeding, sore throat, fever, swelling, constipation, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer. Black alder is sometimes used as a gargle for sore throat, especially strep throat.