Shrub or small tree, spiny and more or less scandent, up to 6–8(–12) m tall, with straight, often short bole and rounded and quite dense crown; bark grey to beige, rough, with fine vertical fissures, often with woody prickle-bearing protuberances; slash yellow, odorous, orange-mottled beneath; stems glabrous, grey, with solitary prickles.
Throughout West Africa the aromatic roots, stem bark and leaves are commonly used in traditional medicine. They are considered antiseptic, analgesic and diaphoretic. Root or stem bark macerations, decoctions or infusions are widely taken to treat malaria, fever, sickle cell anaemia, tuberculosis, paralysis, oedema and general body weakness. They are also widely taken to treat intestinal problems, including colic, dysentery, intestinal worms, gonorrhoea and urethritis, but also as an emmenagogue, stimulant and to treat pain during childbirth, migraine and neuralgia. The roots are externally applied to ulcers, swellings, haemorrhoids, abscesses, snake bites, yaws, wounds leprosy and syphilitic sores as well as rheumatic and arthritic pain and hernia.
The roots and stem bark give a warm, pungent and benumbing effect on the palate when chewed, and are widely used in the treatment of sore gums, toothache and dental caries. A decoction of the roots is used as a mouthwash and against a sore throat.
In Côte d’Ivoire sap from the pulped bark is applied as eye drops to treat eye infections, notably conjunctivitis with pus. In Ghana root and stem bark powder is taken to treat whooping cough.
In southern Nigeria a decoction of the stem bark and roots is taken to treat cancer. Pulped stem bark and root bark is thrown in the water to stupefy fish.
In West Africa, it is planted as a hedge, as the thorns make it impenetrable. Sheep browse the leaves. The wood is used for manufacturing of torches. The timber is yellow, very hard and termite-resistant and used for building purposes, including poles and posts. It also makes good firewood. The roots, young shoots and twigs are commonly used as chew-sticks. The bark or young branches contain much resin, which makes them suitable for ceremonial torches. The spines are thrown into fire to give off a scented smoke. The leaves, which smell like citronella, and the seeds, which taste strongly of cinnamon or pepper, are commonly used to season food. From the seeds, necklaces are made. Zanthoxylum zanthoxyloides also has numerous magico-religious uses, including protection against spirits. It also serves as fetish plant.