Moderate to tall, solitary (rarely clustered), slow-growing, armed, pleonanthic, hermaphroditic palms. Stems covered with persistent leaf sheaths for part or all their length, sometimes becoming bare with age, the naked portion roughened and often with close, rough, ± evident leaf scars, basally expanded or not (Copernicia berteroana). Leaves induplicate, palmate to shortly costapalmate; sheath fibrous, petiole lacking or very short to elongate, channelled or flattened adaxially, rounded abaxially, the margins armed with stout teeth; adaxial hastula short to very long, coriaceous, triangular, unarmed or spinose margined or erose, sometimes persisting after the lamina has disintegrated, abaxial hastula absent; blade wedge-shaped or orbicular, divided 1/4 to 1/3 to the base into single-fold pointed segments, outermost bifid at the apex, segments often spiny margined, thick, very stiff, major ribs with caducous tomentum, midribs prominent abaxially, transverse veinlets not evident. Inflorescences interfoliar, often exceeding the leaves, frequently densely tomentose, branched to 6 orders; peduncle elongate, narrow, elliptic in cross-section; prophyll tubular; peduncular bracts 0–1, apparently 2-winged, irregularly split apically; rachis about as long as or longer than the peduncle; rachis bracts tubular, closely sheathing, first-order branches each bearing a prophyll, subsequent bracts tubular, tightly sheathing, split apically, gradually reduced and lacking on rachillae or present and conspicuous through to the flowers, usually densely tomentose; rachillae of medium length to very short, stout or slender, often recurved, bearing spirally inserted, membranous bracts, each subtending a solitary flower or groups of 2–4 flowers, distant or very crowded, the group and each flower subtended by a membranous bracteole. Flowers with 3 sepals united in a thick-based, 3-lobed cup, lobes usually acute; corolla tubular below with 3 thick-tipped, valvate lobes, prominently pocketed and furrowed within; stamens 6, united by their broad filament bases into a cupule, borne at the mouth of the corolla tube, distinct filament lobes abruptly narrowed to short slender tips, these not inflexed in bud, antesepalous lobes sometimes larger than antepetalous ones, anthers usually small, ovate or oblong, dorsifixed near their bases, latrorse; carpels 3, follicular, distinct basally, styles wide basally, tapering, connate, stigma dot-like, ovule erect, basal, anatropous. Pollen ellipsoidal, with slight to obvious asymmetry; aperture a distal sulcus; ectexine tectate, finely perforate, perforate and micro-channelled, or perforate-rugulate, aperture margin slightly finer; infratectum columellate; longest axis 24–38 µm; post-meiotic tetrads usually tetrahedral, occasionally tetragonal or, rarely, rhomboidal [5/21]. Fruit ovoid or spherical, usually developing from 1 carpel, carpellary remains basal, stigmatic remains apical; epicarp smooth, drying minutely roughened, mesocarp slightly fleshy with longitudinally anastomosing fibres, endocarp moderately thick, crustaceous. Seed ovoid or globose, basally attached, with large ovate basal hilum, raphe indistinct, narrow, branching, endosperm deeply ruminate; embryo subbasal. Germination remote-tubular; eophyll entire, lanceolate. Cytology: 2n = 36.
Copernicia prunifera is of great economic importance as the source of high quality carnauba wax (Johnson 1985). Other parts of all species are also used locally as leaves for thatching, stems for building, and fibres for brushes and rope. Starch from stems and fruits is edible; seedlings are used for fodder.