A deciduous shrub 2-3 m tall with a downy covering of star-shaped hair. Leaves ovate, pointed, to 7 cm long, 5 cm wide, base slightly cordate, dull above and paler below but both surfaces hairy. Flower clusters terminal, more or less round, fragrant, to about 8 cm wide, all flowers fertile, pink in bud, becoming white; spring. Fruits black, ovoid, compressed.
Cultivars and hybrids are now generally grown in preference to the species.
There are several other deciduous species without lobed leaves that are quite widely available.
V. ×carlcephalum A.V. Pike is a hybrid between V. carlesii (seed parent) and V. macrocephalum f. keteleeri which was raised at the Burkwood and Skipwith Nurseryy, Kingston-on-Thames, UK, c. 1932: it differs from V. carlesii in having larger, slightly shiny leaves and larger flower clusters to 15 cm wide.
V. dentatum L., Arrow Wood (Southern Arrow Wood), is a deciduous shrub to about 4 m tall with thin ovate leaves to about 10 cm long, slightly star-haired below and margins with large triangular teeth; flowers about 4 mm wide in flat-topped clusters 10-11 cm wide; summer; fruit blueblack.
V. farreri Stearn, like V. carlesii, has a corolla with a cylindrical tube but can be easily distinguished because the flowers, which are more or less hairless, appear before the leaves. [V. fragrans Bunge] V. ×juddii Rehder is a hybrid between V. carlesii (seed parent)
V. bitchiuense raised by William H. Judd at the Arnold Arboretum, Massachusetts, in 1920; it has more oblong leaves than V. carlesii.
Source: (2002). Caprifoliaceae. In: . Horticultural Flora of South-eastern Australia. Volume 4. Flowering plants. Dicotyledons. Part 3. The identification of garden and cultivated plants. University of New South Wales Press.