Shagbark hickory tree facts

If you are looking for a nut-producing tree that’s sturdy and makes a stately impression in the landscape, then look no further than a hickory tree. Whether you desire to feed the wildlife or yourself, there’s a hickory to fit your taste.

A Family Divided

All hickories belong in the family Carya with the family divided into two major groups: true hickories and pecan hickories. Common species in the true hickory category include shagbark (Carya ovata), pignut (Carya glabra), shellbark (Carya laciniosa), and mockernut (Carya tomentosa).

Of the pecan hickories, the best-known species is pecan (Carya illnoinensis) and is the only hickory that produces nuts having a commercial value. There are over 1000 different cultivars with the major difference being the size, shape, characteristics of the shell, taste, and ripening date of the nuts. Another pecan hickory is the bitternut (Carya cordiformis).

Basic Characteristics of Both Groups

All types are native to eastern portions of the U.S., deciduous and produce nuts. Compared to other hardwood trees, hickories are slow-growing, with pecan the fastest growing species.

These are large trees obtaining a mature height from 60 feet to over 100 feet and the canopies can be as wide as the tree is tall. All types have green, oblong leaves that change color during the fall months.

They generally have one major trunk with grayish to brown bark that develops deep ridges and grooves as it ages and can peel. These are long-lived trees, with an average lifespan of 300 years and producing nuts for most of that time.

The trees produce male flowers, which are green to yellowish long catkins in springtime, and pollination occurs through the wind. Small clusters of female flowers appear on spikes and after being pollinated, fruits appear throughout summer, ripening in autumn.

Male flower, split husks and leaves Female flower and leaves

Differences Between Groups

All types of hickories resemble each other in the look, shape and size of the tree. Looking at the leaf structure helps in distinguishing true hickories from pecan hickories. The leaves on true hickories have five to nine leaflets that are oppositely branched. However, pecan hickories leaves have nine to 17 leaflets that are oppositely branched.

Another way to distinguish the difference between the two types is by inspecting the size and shape of their nuts. A thick, woody shell surrounds all types of hickory nuts, with some types splitting more easily than others do. Shape of the shell can be round like the pignut hickory or more of an oblong shape such as the pecan. All types of hickory nuts are edible, but some are bitter to the taste and some are sweet.

Pecans Shagbark

Characteristics by Type

Each type of hickory has subtle differences from the other whether it’s the nut or size of tree.

  • Shagbark hickory is hardy throughout USDA zones 4 through 8 and averages 70 feet tall at maturity. It grows best in rich, moist soil that drains well and in full to partial sun. Encased in a thick hull, the oval nuts open to reveal a sweet treat. The tree starts producing nuts around 40 years of age.
  • Pignut hickory is hardy in USDA zones 4 through 9 and averages 80 feet tall at maturity. This hickory performs best grown in rich soils that drain well but kept moist and in full sun to partial sun. Pear-shaped nuts have thin husks that give way to bitter fruits suitable for wildlife. The tree doesn’t start producing nuts until around 25 years old.
  • Shellbark hickory is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 8 and averages 80 feet tall at maturity. The tree grows best in rich, moist soils that drain well, though the tree tolerates periodic flooding. Preferred light conditions are sunny to partial shade. The tree is sometimes called king nut hickory because its round, sweet nuts are the largest in the hickory family. Shellbark hickories start producing nuts around 40 years of age.
  • Mockernut hickory is hardy throughout USDA zones 4 through 9 and at maturity averages around 80 feet tall. The tree performs best in rich, moist soils that drain well and in full sun to partial shade. Round nuts are sweet and the tree starts producing nuts when around 25 years old.
  • Pecan hickory is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 9 and at maturity averages around 130 feet tall. It grows best in rich, moist soils that drain well and in full sun to partial shade. The oblong nuts are sweet and trees typically start bearing nuts at seven years.
  • Bitternut hickory is hardy throughout USDA zones 4 through 9 and averaging around 80 feet tall at maturity. The tree performs best in rich, moist soils that drain well and in a sunny to partially sunny location. The rounded nuts are bitter as the name suggests and trees start producing around 25 years of age.

Landscape Uses

All hickories require a large space in the landscape to accommodate their height and width, so select a location where the tree won’t interfere with structures or power lines. Hickory trees work well used as eye-catching specimens or shade trees. Due to their long taproot, when planting, select a permanent location, as the trees do not transplant well.

Like black walnuts, all types of hickories contain the substance juglone, which is toxic to many plants growing under or close to them. Plants affected by the substance show signs of wilting, decreased growth, and death. To play it safe, plant any new plantings at least 80 feet from the hickory.

The trees work well used in wildlife or native gardens with the nuts feeding a host of wildlife such as squirrels. Throughout the autumn months, all types of hickories brighten the landscape with their colorful foliage.

Purchasing Considerations

When purchasing any type of hickory tree, inspect the tree for signs of pest or disease problems. Do not purchase trees with discolored or deformed foliage or has outgrown its nursery container, showing signs of roots growing out of the bottom drain holes. Hickories with wrapping roots sometimes never grow properly once planted in the landscape.

You can probably find a hickory tree that is native to your area at your local nursery; however, many online nurseries sell common hickories such as shellbark, shagbark and pecans. Check online retailers such as Arbor Day Foundation, Willis Orchard Company, and Go Native Tree Farm. Most trees you purchase online or at a local nursery are around 1-year-old or younger and shipped bare rooted and 4 to 6 feet in height.

How to Plant

Properly planting your hickory tree assures it gets off to a good start and healthy growth. Remember, all hickories grow into large trees so make sure to allow at least 35 feet of unobstructed space on all sides of the tree, when selecting a location and the site receives full sun to partial shade throughout the day. For optimal growth, plant hickories during fall and early winter.

  1. Prepare the planting site by removing all grass and weed growth, clearing an area that is approximately 3 feet in diameter.

  2. Dig a hole that is as deep as the container the hickory is growing inside or as deep as the root system, if planting a bare root tree and slightly wider. Do not add fertilizer or amendments to the hole.

  3. Remove the hickory from its nursery container and gently tease the roots apart.

  4. Place the root ball into the prepared hole and gently spread the roots out around the hole. Make sure not to plant too deep and the grafted area on the bottom portion of the trunk is at least 2 inches from the ground.

  5. Fill the hole half-full of soil and then apply water to remove any air pockets. Finish filling the hole with soil and gently tamp down with your foot. Water the area, thoroughly saturating the roots.

Care Requirements

Besides needing a large space to grow, fertile, moist soil that drains well, all hickories require regular applications of water, fertilizer and pruning for healthy trees.


Unless weather conditions are rainy, all types need weekly applications of water to grow properly, especially when conditions are hot and dry. Newly planted trees need watering immediately after planting and once to twice weekly until the tree establishes itself in the planting site approximately eight to 12 weeks later.


Trees that haven’t started bearing nuts require 1 pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer for each year of age and applied in late winter. Do not exceed 25 pounds per tree yearly. Trees that are bearing nuts require 4 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer for each inch of the trunk.

Spread the fertilizer evenly under the hickory’s canopy, not allowing the product to butt against the trunk. Water the fertilizer into the soil after applying. Keep the area under the tree free of grass and weed growth as the unwanted vegetation can rob the tree of the needed nutrients and water. It also cuts down on trunk injuries due to lawn equipment bumping into the tree.


Prune trees to remove damaged, dead, diseased, or crossing limbs anytime throughout the year. Cutting off low-hanging branches close to the trunk allows easy access under the tree’s canopy. Doing heavy pruning of the tree can delay the production of nuts for up to three years. Always use sterilized pruning tool blades to cut into the wood so you don’t transfer disease to the tree.

Harvesting and Storing Hickory Nuts

Depending on the type of tree, hickory nuts begin ripening in September through fall. The outer husk of ripe nuts changes from green to brown and may begin splitting into sections revealing the nut. Allow the nuts to ripen on the tree before harvesting. If picked while the husk is green, the inner meat never ripens. Hickory nuts are ready for harvesting when you notice them falling onto the ground.

  1. Retrieve freshly fallen nuts off the ground and by shaking branches with a long pole.
  2. Place the hickory nuts into a tub of water and toss the ones floating on top as this shows weevils are present or the meat isn’t formed.
  3. Spread the hickory nuts out in a thin layer in a location that’s dry, cool, and with good circulation of air. Due to animals stealing your bounty, you probably don’t want to dry the nuts outdoors.
  4. Allow the nuts to dry for two weeks.

Store them in the shell or shelled in a cool area or inside the refrigerator or freezer.

Common Diseases

Some of the common diseases affecting trees and methods of prevention and control include:

Pecan Scab

A very destructive fungus affecting hickories and is especially damaging to pecan trees and the production of nuts. The problem generally occurs during a wet and humid growing season, tapering off as the seasons continue, only creating cosmetic damage to nuts.

When damaging, pecan scab shows up on the newer growth of twigs, foliage and nuts, covering the affected areas with rough or velvety feeling black spots. Keeping the area clean under the tree, making sure air circulates and keeping any limbs hanging to the ground pruned off, helps in preventing problems. Preventative applications of the fungicide mancozeb sprayed every other month helps control a scab breakout. Thoroughly spray the tree with the fungicide as soon as you notice the problem and repeat every two weeks for three months.


Galls form by various fungi enter the tree, usually through a wound in the bark. Round, dark lesions appear on the branches and can form clumps. No treatment is necessary and the galls only create cosmetic problems. If left on the affected branch, galls will eventually kill the affected wood.

Measures for control include good care of the tree and avoiding injuring the bark. Make sure the hickory is properly watered and fertilized to keep it growing at its best. Prune off limbs with galls present, being sure to trim several inches back into healthy wood. Keep the area under the tree free of fallen nuts and debris.

Powdery Mildew

Powdery mildew is easy to identify because the fungus covers the leaves, stems, and buds in a white, powdery substance that usually appears out of nowhere. Warm, humid, and wet weather are prime conditions for an outbreak of the problem.

Treat the hickory with a copper fungicide, when an occurrence of powdery mildew happens during the growing season, and reapply two weeks later. There is no need for a fungicidal treatment when powdery mildew happens late in fall and winter.

Various Leaf Spots

Hickory trees are susceptible to various types of fungi causing spots on the foliage. The basic difference in the spots is the color. Spots can be yellowish, brown or rust-colored, with the darker spots seeming to affect the lower portion of the foliage.

There is no need to treat the tree because at worse, the affected leaves may drop. Prevent the problem by keeping the area under the tree free of all fallen debris.

Pest Problems

Pests can create problems for the hickory’s foliage, blooms, and nuts.


Aphids are small, pear-shaped sap-sucking insects that are usually yellowish in color. A close inspection of the foliage, especially new shoots, show mass congregation of these insects and sometimes you’ll notice a stream of ants traveling up and down the limbs traveling to the aphids. Ants milk the aphids of the honeydew they produce, which can then lead to the black fungus sooty mold that drops onto the foliage covering it in a black substance.

Aphids suck juices from the hickory’s foliage, which then leads to curling and discoloration of the leaves. An aphid attack usually isn’t life threatening to the tree, but if the landscape doesn’t have enough predators such as parasitic wasps, a treatment of insecticidal soap is necessary. Spray the entire plant with the product, being sure to saturate the undersides of the foliage. Repeat weekly as needed. Wash large outbreaks of sooty mold from the foliage with a strong stream of water or wiping the leaves with a damp cloth.

Bark Beetles

Bark beetles can appear throughout the year especially when conditions are warm, but springtime is their most active time of year and when you may notice their activity. The small, brown rice-sized insect bores holes through the hickory bark to lay its eggs and then bores through the cadmium of the tree. You might also notice what looks like highways bored into the tree’s outer bark. Once the tree is infected control is almost impossible, but prevention is the most important step one can take.

The beetle rarely seriously affects healthy hickories, so making sure the tree is properly watered and fertilized is the best course in preventive action. Before the beetle infests the tree, spray the trunk with a pyrethroid-based insecticide and repeat every couple of weeks to keep adults at bay. If you notice a beetle infestation on the branches, prune off the affected branch, being sure to cut several inches back into healthy wood.


Spittlebugs are small winged insects that rarely reach over 1/4-inch in length and range in colors of greenish to brown and gardeners will rarely notice them. A telltale sign of a spittlebug infestation is what looks like areas of spit congregated on the foliage, stems and buds. The major damage they cause is distortion of the foliage and isn’t life-threatening to the hickory. Control is a simple as spraying the infected areas with a strong blast of water. Keep the area under the hickory clean of any fallen debris.

Pecan Weevil

Pecan weevils overwinter in the ground under the hickory tree and usually emerge during late summer crawling up the tree and attacking the unripe nuts by laying their larvae inside. If left unchecked, the weevil larvae destroy a nut harvest.

Prevention is the best course of action in preventing a weevil infestation. Clean up all fallen nuts and debris from the ground beneath the tree. In early summer, apply an insect barrier to the trunk, such as Tanglefoot, which keeps the weevils from climbing up the tree and getting to the ripening nuts. For further prevention, spray the entire tree’s foliage and nuts with a product such as Sevin and repeat as the package recommends, which is generally every two weeks. This should kill any insects that have gained entry to upper portions of the tree.

General Prevention and Treatment of Problems

Several pests and disease problems affect all types of hickories. Keeping the area under and around the tree free of unwanted growth and fallen debris goes a long way in keeping trees healthy as well as adequate air circulation around trees.

When using any type of fungicide, insecticide, or other products to treat problems, make sure you fully cover both sides of the foliage and all portions of the tree for the best control.

More Than a Shade and Nut Tree

Hickory trees offer so much more than just being a large, majestic tree casting shade and a good supply of nuts. Any healthy limbs pruned from the tree should be dried and used in the grill or smoker to enhance the food with a delicious smoky taste.

Shagbark Hickory Tree

Shagbark hickory tree, a native of northeastern North America, is a tall deciduous tree, growing to 80 feet and forming dense shade at maturity. It is not commonly known as an ornamental tree despite several interesting characteristics.

Description of shagbark hickory tree: The growth of the shagbark hickory is upright at first, but at maturity it forms a round-topped tree. Its most striking characteristic is its bark — gray to brown, but broken into plates that curve at the ends, giving it a shaggy appearance. The leaves are pinnately compound with five leaflets and shaded a deep yellow-green. In the fall they become yellow or golden brown. The fruits are large, oblong, and contain large edible nuts.


Growing shagbark hickory tree: The shagbark hickory does best on deep, rich loams but will tolerate poorer soils. It is best grown in full sun or light shade. The tree produces a deep taproot, which makes it particularly hard to transplant. It is often most easily grown from seed sown where you want the tree to grow.

Uses for shagbark hickory tree: The shagbark hickory is an excellent shade tree with good fall color. Not only are its nuts edible but its wood is highly esteemed for many uses. This is the tree used in producing hickory-scented foods.

Shagbark hickory tree related species: The shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa) is similar but is better adapted to damp, even wet, soils.

Scientific name of shagbark hickory tree: Carya ovata

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Get to know the different types of hickory wood and other important facts about them. Some types of hickory wood may be popular because its wood is converted into chips as an added smoke flavor for a barbeque while some are known for their uses for making bows, tool handles, carts and more!

Hickory wood is a popular wood type in the United States. It is the hardwood that is most commonly used in BBQ. It is called the ‘King of BBQ wood’. It produces a heavy but sweet smelling smoke which makes it ideal for cooking beef, pork, poultry, and game meats like lamb.

Being such a commonly used wood type, one should have some knowledge regarding it. Let’s look at the hickory wood in detail below.

Hickory trees belong to the genus Carya. The word Carya is an ancient Greek term which means nut. There are about 17 to 19 known species of Hickory. An overwhelming number of species of hickories are found in North America. About 11 to 12 of all hickory species are found in North America. 5 to 6 species are native to China, Indo-China, and India. 2 to 4 species are from Canada.

Every species of hickory produces a different nut, but not all of these nuts are edible. Hickory trees are planted widely for shade, hardwood, and are a habitat to small animals and birds.

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Description of Hickory Tree

Hickories are deciduous trees, having large nuts and pinnately compound leaves. They can grow as tall as 50 to 100 feet and can spread as wide as 40 feet. These trees can live for many years. Hickory flowers are small in size. They are yellow-green colored catkins that bloom in spring. The fruit of the hickory tree is an oval nut or globose; it’s about 2 to 5 cm long and 1.5 to 3 cm in diameter. The nut splits open when mature.

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Hickory trees fall in a hardiness zone of 4 to 8. They can grow in most types of soils but they grow best in moist soil, which is not soggy and is well-drained. They prefer sunny areas to grow.

Evolutionary History of Hickory

The earliest hickories have been identified from Cretaceous pollen grains. The Carya family first appeared in Oligocene strata about 34 million years ago. Fossils of hickory nuts show that the earlier hickory nuts had thinner shells. It indicates that over the period of time, hickory trees have developed a defense to seed predation by rodents.

Fossil records show that North America had the largest number of hickory species. It is quite likely that the genus of hickory originated from North America and later spread into Asia and Europe.

Types of Hickory Wood

As mentioned earlier, there are about 17 to 19 different types of hickory trees. The types of hickory wood obtained from each of these species have distinct characteristics. The types that are most common in North America have been listed down for you.

1. Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovate)

Shagbark hickory is found in southeast Canada and the eastern United States. This large, deciduous tree grows over 100 feet in height and can live for as many as 350 years! The tallest shagbark that has ever been measured is more than 150 feet tall. The identification of Shagbark hickory is easy because they have shaggy bark. The bark of young trees is smooth that becomes shaggy as the tree matures.

The leaves are pinnate having 5 leaflets. The terminal three leaflets are larger than the basal ones. It is monoecious. The flowers are present on catkins that are long-stalked, present at the tip of old hickory wood.

The fruit is an edible nut that tastes very sweet. It has a very hard, bony shell which is contained in a green husk with four sections. As the nut becomes mature, it changes its color and turns dark.

Shagbark trees can tolerate a wide range of conditions such as acidic or alkaline soil and drought. They grow well in areas that are large, free from salty soil, and well-drained.

The heartwood of Shagbark hickory wood is light to medium brown in color. it has a reddish hue to its shade. However, the sapwood is paler than the heartwood. The grain of shagbark hickory wood is straight with a medium texture. It can be wavy sometimes. It is not durable because of its susceptibility to insect attacks. It can also decay over time. Shagbark wood is commonly used to make ladder rungs, tool handles, flooring, wheel spokes, etc.

2. Shellbark Hickory (Carya laciniosa)

Shellbark hickory belongs to the walnut family. This low-growing tree can live up to several hundreds of years. They usually grow to 50 to 75 feet tall.

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It has a shaggy, gray colored bark. Leaves of shellbark hickory are found in clusters of seven to nine leaflets. The nuts are oval shaped. They are enclosed in a husk that has five to six sections. The nuts of shellbark hickory are the largest of all hickory types.

They grow best in moist soils. This hickory species cannot tolerate alkaline soil at all. They are intolerant to drought, salty soil, and salty sprays as well. They prefer growing in a large area with well-drained soil.

Shellbark hickory wood is similar to the shagbark hickory wood in appearance and durability. However, shellbark hickory wood has a lower crushing strength as compared to that of shagbark hickory wood.

3. Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)

The Mockernut hickory falls in the walnut family. It is the most abundant type of hickory tree. It is found in the eastern half of the United States. It can love as long as 500 years! Mockernut hickory tree grows straight to a height of 50 to 60 feet. Hickory wood obtained from this tree is used for products where flexibility, strength, and hardness are needed.

The name of this tree comes from a Latin word tomentum, which means, “covered with dense short hair.” This is because the underside of leaves has short hair. This characteristic helps in its identification.

The leaves are compound leaves and are found in an alternate fashion. They have seven to nine leaflets that have short hair on the underside and on the stalk. The terminal leaf is the largest. The nut has four sections.

It grows best in a humid climate, in soil that is slightly acidic. It does not tolerate alkaline or salty soil.

Mockernut hickory wood is strong, hard, and flexible. It is used to make tool handles for which high shock resistance is required. It is also used to make athletic good, ladder rungs, dowels, agricultural implements, gym apparatus, well pumps, shafts, poles, and furniture. It can also be used for veneer but the quality is a major limiting factor. Lower-grade Mockernut hickory wood is used to make the blocking, pallets, and similar items.

4. Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra) 🔥 TIP: !

Pignut hickory is not an abundant species of hickory. It is found in Canada and the Eastern part of the United States. Pignut hickory is a dark-gray-colored hickory that grows up to 50 to 60 feet tall.

The bark of these trees may become shaggy as the tree ages. The leaves are compound, having five to seven leaflets. The leaflet at the end is the largest. The nut of pignut hickory is bitter. It is pear-shaped and has four ridges on the husk.

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It grows well in a variety of soils. It can tolerate salty soil and drought conditions. It needs well-drained soil to survive.

Pignut hickory wood is used to make skis and tool handles. In colonial times, it was widely used to make wheels of wagons and brooms.

5. Pecan Hickory (Carya illinoinensis)

Pecan hickory is native to the southern United States and northern Mexico. This tree is tall and can grow to be as high as 40 to 75 feet. Due to fruit and leaf drop, it can be quite a messy tree.

The bark of pecan hickory is black in color. The leaves have 9 to 17 long, narrow leaflets. Each tip has a hook-shape. The nuts are cylindrical in shape. The nuts of pecan hickory are the sweetest among nuts of all hickory trees.

It can tolerate acidic soil. It can also tolerate alkaline soils only moderately. It cannot withstand drought, salty soil, or salt spray.

Pecan hickory wood is used in making of paneling, flooring, millwork, furniture, brush handles, bending stock, woodenware, turnings, and toys. It is suitable specifically for liquid and food containers because it is odorless and tasteless wood.

6. Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis)

Bitternut hickory is also known as the swamp hickory. It is a large, deciduous tree that grows to a height of 35 meters.

The leaves of bitternut hickory are pinnate, having 7 to 11 leaflets. The apical leaflets are the largest among all. The flowers are small catkins. The fruit is a nut that is very bitter in taste, hence the name bitternut hickory. The shell of the nut is very hard and bony. A prominent identification feature of this type of hickory is the yellow colored winter buds.

It grows well in acidic soil. It can tolerate alkaline pH. It can also tolerate salt spray but it is intolerant to salty soil.

Bitternut hickory wood is widely used for pulpwood and lumber. It is hard and durable and hence it is commonly used to make furniture, dowels, paneling, ladders, and tool handles. It is also used to smoke meat.

Other types of hickory trees that are not as common in North America as the above-listed types of hickory trees are as following:

7. Scrub Hickory (Carya floridana)

It is native to the southeastern part of the United States. It can grow as high as 25 meters. Leaves of the scrub hickory are pinnate, having three to seven leaflets. The leaflets have a coarse, toothed margin. The nuts are edible and sweet, enclosed in a hard shell.

8. Red Hickory (Carya ovalis)

This very rare type of hickory is native to the Eastern side of North America. The red hickory tree can grow to a height of 30 meters. The leaves are pinnately compound and have five to nine leaflets with the terminal leaflet being the largest. The mature bark is gray in color. The nuts are either present as a single unit or in clusters of two or three at the end of the branches. Male flowers are longer while female flowers appear bizarre.

9. Sand Hickory (Carya pallid)

It is native to the southeastern United States. It can grow to a height of about 80 feet.

10. Black Hickory (Carya texana)

Black hickory is a North American tree. It is an endangered hickory species in Southwestern Indiana. The tree can grow to a height of about 41 meters. The leaves are scaly and a rusty brown in color. Leaves are pinnate and have seven leaflets. The nuts are sweet and edible.

Uses of Hickory Wood

Hickory wood is stiff, hard, dense, and resistant to shock. The combination of toughness, strength, stiffness, and hardness that is found in hickory wood is not found in any other type of commercial wood despite the fact that other woods might be stronger.

It is used to make bows, tool handles, carts, wheel spokes, golf club shafts, drumsticks, lacrosse stick handles, bottoms of walking sticks and skis, and for punitive use. Hickory wood can also be used to make paddles.

Formerly, baseball bats were made from hickory wood. At present, they are made from ash. It is also seen being used in chimneys and wood-burning stoves because it has high energy content. In earlier times, hickory wood was used to construct aircraft. It is highly durable and resists water, due to which it is often used to make floorings.

Identification of Hickory Wood

Most types of wood may appear similar from a distance but when you see closely you will observe certain distinctive features that help in identification. Different types of hickory wood have different strength, hardness, and durability. Hickory wood is medium brown in color with a reddish hue. It may have gold or yellow colored highlights.

High-grade hickory wood has straight grains. It offers a consistent and uniform quality which makes it ideal to be used in high-end businesses and homes. Lower grade hickory wood has knots and streaks. It is used in cabinetry. It gives a rustic appearance that makes it ideal to be used in cabins, lodges, and countryside homes.

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Hickory, any of about 18 species of deciduous timber and nut-producing trees that constitute the genus Carya of the walnut family (Juglandaceae). About 15 species of hickory are native to eastern North America, and 3 to eastern Asia. Fossil remains identifiable as belonging to the genus are found in western North America, Greenland, Iceland, and Europe.

Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata)Grant Heilman/Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Hickories typically grow to about 30 m (100 feet) tall and have a long taproot. The leaves are composed of 3 to 17 leaflets each; those of some species turn bright yellow in autumn. The male and female flowers, both of which lack petals, are borne in different clusters on the same tree, the male in hanging catkins and the female in terminal spikes of 2 to 10 flowers. The fruit is an egg-shaped nut enclosed in a fleshy husk that splits into four woody valves as it matures.

The nuts of some species contain large, sweet-tasting, edible seeds; the principal edible nuts are those of the shagbark hickory (C. ovata), the shellbark hickory (C. laciniosa), the mockernut hickory (C. tomentosa), and the pecan (C. illinoensis). The nuts of the bitternut hickory (C. cordiformis) and the water hickory (C. aquatica) are bitter-tasting and inedible, because the skin covering the kernels contains tannin. The nuts of most other species are edible but are too small to be commercially important.

Pecan (q.v.), the most valuable species economically, is cultivated for its flavourful nuts and its light-coloured wood. The wood of other hickories is used as fuel and for tool handles, sports equipment, furniture, and flooring.

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Exploring The Last Green Valley: Shagbark hickory a beautiful and useful tree

We have several hickory trees in our neighborhood, but the one I appreciate the most stands by the stone wall bordering the back pasture. At least 60 feet tall in the open air, the tree benefits from little competition for sunlight. Its rounded crown is well shaped, full of leaves, and it has a thick main stem with spreading branches.

The tree is distinctive, not only for its place, shape and size but for its shaggy, silvery gray bark. As its description implies, it is a shagbark hickory tree, one of a few on my property. In fact, we have two types of hickory on our land, the shagbark and the pignut hickory.

Shaggy is a perfect description for the bark of the shagbark hickory as its loose strips appear to be peeling away from the trunk at both the top and bottom. This is the defining feature to distinguish the shagbark from the other hickory tree types. The pignut hickory, for example, has silver gray bark with tight interlacing ridges. Other types of hickory trees found in Southern New England include the mockernut hickory and the bitternut hickory.

The hickory is of the genus Carya, a hardwood that is found in North America and Asia and is in the walnut family. The leaves are alternate compound with usually five, and sometimes seven, large leaflets on each leaf stem. The nuts have a husk that peels off revealing a hard shell inside.

Hickory trees have several important uses for both humans and wildlife.

If you have a wooden-handled hammer or axe, more than likely the handle has been fashioned from hickory wood. The wood is extremely strong, shock resistant, and holds up well to the wear and tear of regular use.

The commercial use of the wood can also be found in athletic equipment, furniture and flooring. It has a long history of uses, including wooden ladders, carriage wheels and spokes and in timber frame construction. If you like smoked meats, then you’re familiar with the flavor hickory smoke can impart on meats, especially hickory-smoked bacon.

Those who heat their homes with wood know the significant value of hickory as an excellent heat source. Among the trees in our region used for cordwood, the hickory has the highest BTUs. (BTU stands for British Thermal Unit with one BTU equal to the amount of energy used to raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree of Fahrenheit.)

Hickory trees produce flavorful nuts for both animal and human consumption. The shell is very hard, not easy to break open, but is worth the effort once you taste the sweet pecan-flavored fatty nutmeat. The nutmeat is high in calories, estimated at 193 calories per ounce.

I have not taken the time to gather the nuts and extract the meat from inside the hard shell, but I know the fat and happy squirrel population in our neighborhood has certainly benefited from the many hickory trees. Other animals relying on the hickory for food source include mice, chipmunks, rabbits, black bear, wild turkeys and foxes. Bats roost within the snug crevices of the long thick plates of the shaggy bark, providing shade and perfect cover during the spring and summer daylight hours.

The shagbark hickory reaches maturation for seed production at around 40 years. Among our deciduous trees the hickory is very long-lived with a lifespan of 200 years, with some shagbarks continuing to produce seeds until 300 years of age.

We live in a beautiful region called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor — 77 percent undeveloped land predominately in forest and field. Among the many species of deciduous trees in our region the shagbark hickory stands out for its beauty, unique bark and beneficial uses as a wood and food source.

I hope you’ll join me and others as we care for, enjoy and pass on this special place we call home – The Last Green Valley.

Bill Reid is the chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at [email protected]

In 1792, William Bartram reported in his book, Travels, the discovery of a native shagbark hickory nut that he called ‘Juglans exaltata.’ Today, shagbark hickory is called ‘Carya ovata.’ Bartram reported that this shagbark hickory grove was cultivated in groves by the Indians west of Augusta, Ga.

Bartram documented that he saw 100 bushels of shagbark hickory nuts that were stored at just a single Indian family home. The nuts were pounded into a mash, and then boiled in water, where a white, oily liquid separated called ‘hickory milk.’ The liquid was described to be as sweet and rich as a fresh cream and was an active ingredient used by the Indians in cooking corn bread and hominy grits.

There remains some question whether or not the Indians near Augusta on the Altamaha River hickory groves as described by Bartram were actually planted as orchard trees or just harvested at a naturally located site. Many such productive groves occur along tidal creeks in Coastal Georgia, a few are left intact by land developers for the recreational value of the trees and the food value of the nuts that are gathered at one such Episcopal camp near Brunswick, Ga. along a tidal basin aquifer ‘Honeycreek,’ a tributary of the Satilla River.

The hickory cream that was recovered by the Indians for cooking purposes was also described by Indians from the Algonquian tribe in Virginia who called this cream “pawcohiccora,” thus the word ‘hickory’ was adapted, modified, and abbreviated by the English colonists.

The shelled nuts of hickory are greatly sought after and appreciated for the unique flavor, not only by birds and animals, but by cooks and gourmet nut fanciers as well. The shagbark hickory nut, when added to chocolate fudge, leaves a pleasurable, indelible memory to all who are lucky enough to have experienced this delicious encounter.

A group of entrepreneurs out West offer shagbark syrup made from a top secret recipe that is made from a white inner bark extract of the juice obtained in the spring from shagbark hickory trees. The extract is obtained by pressure cooking and straining the juices from the pulverized and shredded bark. The demand is so great for this bottled hickory flavoring, that it has never satisfied the market to chefs throughout the United States. Julia Child reports that one of her favorite gourmet preparations includes mixing the bark extract with bourbon as a marinade for ribs.

Every backyard chef with a grill appreciates the fine flavoring that hickory tree wood smoke transfers into meat, fish, and many other food items. Early colonists used hickory tree wood smoke to flavor, cure, and preserve meats in the famous smokehouses of Virginia.

In the natural state of hardwood forests, hickory trees have hybridized easily and readily within species to produce numerous variations and combinations of characteristics that possess the traditional vigor displayed in scientific intercrosses of species by academic professionals.

The difficulties that have delayed commercial orchard development basically lies in the extreme difficulty in successfully grafting 130 cultivar selections for nursery distributors.

Some hickory nuts have smooth, thin shells that can be easily cracked by squeezing two together in the hand, but other hickory nut shells are so thick and hard that they must be cracked by several vigorous hits from a heavy hammer.

Since hickory nuts are difficult to shell out into large pieces, it is beneficial to soak the nuts in water overnight before cracking. The shelled nuts then should be dried and placed in a cool, dark location until they are to be used in recipes.

Even though some cultivars can produce kernels up to 47% by weight, most nuts only shell out about 30% kernel. There is a great variability in hickory flavor from one cultivar to the next, however, they all have a high unsaturated fat content with strong medical antioxidant properties that transmits that characteristic spicy, sweet, buttery taste from the kernels.

A mature shagbark hickory tree is unmistakable in its shaggy, unkempt trunk appearance and its bright green, shiny leaves constantly moving in the breeze at the globular treetop. Young trees have a shiny, smooth bark that only begin to shred hair-like at an age of about 25 years.

Shagbark hickory trees are easy to transplant until about 4-5 feet tall, when a long taproot begins to anchor the tree to the ground with very few lateral roots. Because of these sturdy, deep growing taproots, and dense wood, the trees are among the best lawn specimens to plant in hurricane locations, since they appear invulnerable to wind damage with very straight trunks.

Several observations have been made on natural state hybridization between shagbark hickory ‘Carya ovata,’ and pecan trees, ‘Carya illinoinensis.’ The resulting nuts seem to have flavor and nut characteristics somewhere in between the two species and are being planted by nut hobbyists and some have found a place within some commercial pecan orchards to insure pollination of this genetic marvel named, ‘Hican.’

The many uses of shagbark hickory trees include fuel, wood, and furniture products and as a supplement to charcoal cooking as a smoking agent for taste and preservation of meats. Because of the dense wood, hickory is used in tool handles such as hammers and axes, as well as chairs, ladders, golf clubs, baseball bats, and skis.

Nut Trees

Publication by Patrick A Malcolm

Nut trees are a favorite food source because of the fast growing trees that grow a nut of high quality, spicy flavor, crunchy texture, and easy storage. Some nut trees such as the pecan tree grow papershell nuts that are fast and easily shelled. English Walnuts, also called ‘Carpathian’ or ‘Persian’ walnuts, grow to maturity before holidays and are inseparable from the joy of Christmas treats. The hickory nut tree is not known for its thin shell, but once cracked, the crunchy spicy taste rewards the nut tree lover. Hickory nuts are loved by wildlife and eagerly harvested from the hickory nut trees during Fall. The hickory tree makes a fast growing shade tree and hickory wood is grown to smoke meats.

Almond trees produce a favorite American nut known in candy nut mixtures and antioxidant health benefits. The Halls Hardy almond is cold hardy and grows fast to nut bearing size. Almond nuts are canned for high quality gifts and eating enjoyment. American filbert (Hazelnut) nut trees produce a tasty nut of high quality used in candies, nut holiday mixtures, and cakes.

The filbert (Hazelnut) tree does not grow very large, but the filbert nut crop is high quality and fast maturing in the Fall. Chestnut tree nuts are available as Chinese chestnut trees, American chestnut tree seedlings and the grafted colossal papershell chestnut tree. The nuts from the chestnut trees often mature in the Fall and are roasted in open fireplaces for their aroma and spicy flavor. Chinquapin nuts are a favorite nut tree that grow sweet kernels in paper-thin shells, easy to crack. The Allegheny chinquapin nut tree is rarely available to buy as well as the (dwarf) Georgianna chinquapin tree. The Black walnut tree is fast growing as a shade tree, lumber source, and for black walnut nut production. The black walnut nut is not easy to shell like the nuts of the butternut (white walnut tree), but the Thomas black walnut tree grows a thin shell, not papershell, that easily cracks into halves of walnut. The Thomas black walnut tree will bear fast on large trees and is grafted for buyers of fast growing black walnut trees.

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Saturday – September 17, 2011

From: Waynesboro, VA
Region: Select Region
Topic: Edible Plants, Poisonous Plants, Trees
Title: Could hickory leaves be used as seasoning from Waynesboro VA
Answered by: Barbara Medford


I have a hickory tree. If I pull a leaf off and rip it then smell, there is a strong wonderful scent of hickory much like when I rip a mint leaf there is a strong smell of mint. So my question is, can I use the leaves from the hickory tree as a seasoning agent in a similar way as I would use mint leaves? I’ve searched everywhere and couldn’t find anything about the use of the hickory leaves. I can’t imagine, with as strong as they smell, that they wouldn’t work as a seasoning but I just don’t know about the safety of using them, especially since I couldn’t find anything online about people using the leaves, it makes me wonder if it is safe. Thanks!


There are 7 hickories native to Virginia. We chose Carya ovata (Shagbark hickory) as our example. Our Native Plant Database has no indication that members of the genus Carya are poisonous. Here are a few databases of poisonous plants you could look at; it is always better to search on the scientific name (Carya ovata). Ordinarily, you could assume that if it did not appear in a few databases, it will probably not appear in any, but if you are going to feed this to your family, perhaps it would do well to be more cautious. It occurs to us that perhaps the reason you see no recipes for cooking with hickory leaves is that they are not very good. If you feel comfortable that they are not poisonous you might cook one and eat it yourself; better get a bad taste in your mouth than serve it to guests. I always think of vanilla-smells like heaven and tastes terrible.

From a previous Mr. Smarty Plants answer:

“Whenever Mr. Smarty Plants gets questions about toxic plants, he checks out these databases to look for answers.

The Merck Veterinary Manual
University of Arkansas
University of Illinois (common names only)
Toxic Plants of Texas

Poisonous Plants of North Carolina

Cornell University Plants Poisonous to Livestock

University of Pennsylvania Poisonous Plants

Canadian Poisonous Plants Information System

California Poison Action Line

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