It is a dense deciduous shrub growing to 1 to 2.5 meters tall. The name comes from the appearance of the bark, which is flaky, peeling away in many layers. The shrub has distinctive maple-like lobed leaves 3-14 cm long and broad, and clusters of small white flowers with five petals and numerous red-tipped stamens. The unique fruit is an inflated glossy red pod which turns dry and brown and then splits open to release seeds. Can plant in Redwood Forest, Chaparral, Yellow Pine Forest, Red Fir Forest and wetland-riparian.
It is often found in wetlands, but also forms thickets along rivers and in moist forest habitats. While it grows most robustly in wet environments, it is drought-tolerant to a degree and is a popular California garden plant. Some Native Americans made a medicinal tea from the bark which is reportedly toxic.