The trees grow to a height of 15–25 m (49–82 ft). The characteristic bark is smooth, powdery and greenish yellow, although new twigs are purple, flaking later to reveal the characteristic yellow. It is one of the few trees where photosynthesis takes place in the bark. Straight, white spines grow from the branch nodes in pairs. The leaves are twice compound, with small leaflets (8 mm × 2 mm (0.3 in × 0.1 in)). The flowers are produced in scented pale cream spherical inflorescences, clustered at the nodes and towards the ends of the branches. The pale brown pods contain 5-10 elliptical, flattened green seeds and are 5–19 cm (2.0–7.5 in) long, straight, flat and rather papery, the segments are mostly longer than they are wide, often breaking up to form small clusters of segments each containing an individual seed. As the pods mature they change colour from green to pale greyish brown.
In Australia, Vachellia xanthophlea is a prohibited invasive plant in the state of Queensland under the Biosecurity Act 2014, under which it must not be given away, sold, or released into the environment without a permit. The act further requires that all sightings of Vachellia xanthophlea are to be reported to the appropriate authorities within 24 hours and that within Queensland everyone is obliged to take all reasonable and practical steps to minimise the risk of Vachellia xanthophlea spreading until they have received advice from an authorised officer. Although so far, it has only been found in a few gardens and not in the "wild". It is also a "declared pest" in Western Australia xanthophloea is found growing near swamps, riverine forests or on lake shores, in semi-evergreen bush land and woodland where there is a high groundwater table. In seasonally flooded areas it often forms dense single species stands.
The leaves and pods are used to provide food for livestock while the young branches and foliage are eaten by African elephants while giraffe and vervet monkeys eat the pods and leaves. The flowers are used for foraging by bees and provides favoured nesting sites for birds. Like other acacias and Fabaceae it is a nitrogen fixer, so improves soil fertility. The gum is part of the diet of the Senegal bushbaby (Gallinago senegalensis) especially in the dry season