How to Grow a Shagbark Hickory Tree

Image of fall foliage of shagbark hickory tree.
David Beaulieu
In This Article

Native to North America, shagbark hickory trees are a common sight in the eastern United States. They are related to the pecan tree (another native nut bearer) and can reach heights of 130 feet in some places.

Best planted in early spring, shagbark hickory trees are slow growers if left to their own devices, so you will need to "cheat" if you wish to plant one and harvest home-grown nuts from it anytime soon. Nurseries that sell commercial cultivars do the cheating for you by employing grafting techniques that produce superior specimens, which can yield a harvest in as little as two to three years.

Botanical Name Carya ovata
Common Name  Shagbark hickory
Plant Type  Tree
Mature Size  70–90 ft. tall, 50–70 ft. wide
Sun Exposure  Full sun, partial shade
Soil Type  Rich, moist but well-draining
Soil pH  Acidic
Bloom Time  Spring
Flower Color  Greenish-yellow (insignificant)
Hardiness Zones  4–8 (USDA)
Native Area  North America
Toxicity  Non-toxic

Shagbark Hickory Tree Care

Shagbark hickory trees derive their unique name from the interesting peeling bark they bear. Strips of the tree's exterior will jut out from one or both ends, curling outward and providing the trunk with a lot of texture. In addition, the wood of the tree is very hard—it's used to make ax handles, baseball bats, and other products that demand tough lumber. When burned, the tree gives off a fragrant smoke, which is the reason for the popularity of hickory in the meat-curing process.

Shagbark hickory trees are easy to care for, though they can take years to become established as shade trees in your landscape. The trees will transform into a vibrant yellow or golden brown each fall before dropping their leaves for the winter.

Light

Full sunlight is preferred when getting your shagbark hickory tree established in your landscape, though partial shade is also probably fine. Ultimately, you should aim to give your tree at least six to eight hours of bright sunlight daily. Once established, the tree will likely be one of the larger specimens in your yard, so you should have no problem with shade from other trees.

Soil

Plant your shagbark hickory tree in soil that is moist but well-draining and rich in nutrients. You'll want to carefully select where you plant your tree, too—keep a proper distance from nearby structures and avoid planting the specimen anywhere where the roots may eventually run into an issue, like near driveways or established sidewalks. When planting, ensure that the tree's root collar rests just below ground level.

Water

Water your tree regularly, especially after initially planting the tree and throughout its first season. A good rule of thumb is to always keep the soil moist for the plant's first year—after that, the roots should be established and the tree should do fine with the regular rainfall (though you should water in the case of a drought).

Temperature and Humidity

As long as you plant your tree in the proper USDA hardiness zone, you should require no additional special temperature or humidity conditions. Shagbark hickory trees can tolerate temperature extremes of -40 degrees Fahrenheit all the way up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit, though they grow best in moderately temperate and humid climates.

Fertilizer

It's a good idea to fertilize your shagbark hickory tree until it starts bearing nuts (which can be anywhere from two to 15 years, depending on the maturity of the tree you start with. If you need to fertilize your tree, do so once a year in the early spring or fall, using a balanced slow-release blend. Measure out the fertilizer ahead of time, using one pound of fertilizer for every inch in the trunk's diameter (for example, a tree that has a trunk that is 5 inches in diameter should get 5 pounds of fertilizer).

How to Harvest Hickory Nuts

When people refer to the fruit (nut) of shagbark hickory trees, they're really referencing three different parts of the nut—the husk, the hard outer shell under the husk, and the mean of the nut within the hard outer shell.

Ripening of the nuts begins in September and October—the green, leathery husk eventually turns brown and becomes more brittle. In fact, sometimes, when the nuts fall to the ground, the husks split open into four segments, allowing access to the meat within. Even then, you have still got the hard outer nutshell to crack. Do not try cracking the husk prematurely unless you are a glutton for hard work.

For this reason, some harvesters just wait until late autumn for all the nuts to fall before collecting them. Just be aware: Rodents and other pests (think: squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, and mice) are also fond of shagbark hickory nuts and may get to them before you do.

Hickory nuts can be eaten straight from the shell, boiled down to create a porridge, or used in a cake or muffin recipe. You can also refrigerate the meat after you have removed it from the shells, or freeze it for up to a year.

Common Pests/Diseases

Like most hickory trees, shagbark hickory trees are susceptible to canker, a wood-rotting fungus that will kill the tree. Keeping trees well-watered and scraping off any discolored wood you spot may help slow the spread of canker. Shagbarks also are vulnerable to anthracnose, which causes brown spots on their leaves. While it may lead to leaf loss, anthracnose isn't considered a serious threat to a tree's health.

Among the insects that plague the shagbark hickory are aphids and the aptly named hickory bark beetle. Keeping trees well-watered is one way to avoid pests, but spraying with an insecticide (which is labeled as safe for the tree) is usually the only way to eradicate the bugs completely.