The stem of Encephalartos aemulans is well developed, erect and unbranched. It can be up to 1.5 meters tall and rarely up to 3 meters and suckers from the base. Stems are up to 350mm in diameter and has a densely wooly crown.
Leaves are dark glossy green and straight. The rigid leaves are from 1.2 meters to 1.5 meters long and rarely 2 meters long. The petioles are short and only 70mm to 110mm long. The pinnae are directed towards the apex of the leave at an angle of 15º - 45º and opposing pinnae are set at 135º to each other. Basal pinnae do not overlap and are reduced to prickles towards the base of the leaf. The median pinnae either do not overlap or the lower margin overlaps the upper margin of the pinna below it. The median pinnae are 125mm to 150mm long and are 16mm to 18mm wide, narrowly elliptic and very slightly recurved, tapering at both ends. The apices are offset and spinescent, with 2 to 3 teeth on the upper margin and 1 to 2 on the lower margin.
Pollen and seed cones are sessile and very simmilar. The specific epithet, meaning similar, refers to this characteristic of E. aemulans. Two to four cones are usually produced per stem. Male cones are ellipsoid at first, becoming more elongated when mature. It is lemon yellow and covered with a dense brown wooly coat. They are 29-38cm long and 14-18cm wide. The microsporophylls are wide and rhombic. The faces are smooth except for the front facet which is slightly raised and warty. Female cones are ellipsoid, green and has the same wooly coat as the male cones. They are 35-40cm long and 20-23cm wide. Megasporophyll faces are warty. The peduncle can be 2 to 2.5cm long and is buried in the crown. The sarcotesta is bright red and the sclerotesta has poorly expressed longitudinal ridges. Seeds are 25-29mm long and 15-19mm in diameter.
Encephalartos aemulans is, vegetatively, almost indistinguishable from E. lebomboensis because of the narrow pinnae, reduced to prickles towards the base of the frond. The tuberculate macrosporophyll faces resemble that of E. natalensis and E. altensteinii. However, it differs profoundly from these species with it's almost simmilar, densely wooly male and female cones, the lack of a visible peduncle on the male cone and the structure of the microsporophylls. E. aemulans occurrs in an area unusually rich in Encephalartos with E. lebomboensis, E. natalensis, E. villosus, E.umbeluziensis and E. ngoyanus occurring closely.
This species has long been collected before being described and can be found in private collections. Plants have even been collected from the type locality after description and for that reason information about locality is kept secret to protect the plants. While one population seems to do well and seedling regeneration is taking place, total numbers are very low and this species needs protection against depletion to ensure the survival of mature reproducing plants in the wild.