Shagbark Hickory Trees

Triple Threat: Edible Nuts, Flaking Bark, Fall Foliage

Image of fall foliage of shagbark hickory tree.
Shagbark hickory tree is about more than nuts in fall. It also sports golden fall foliage. David Beaulieu

A species indigenous to North America, shagbark hickory trees are widespread in the Eastern U.S. in zones 4-8. They are related to the pecan, another native American nut bearer. Although they can reach a height of 130 feet in some portions of their range, these popular nut trees often reach only about half that size. They grow in full to partial sun.

Shagbark Hickory Trees in the Landscape: Cultivars

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 sometime soon.

It would just take too long to enjoy a harvest if you tried raising seedlings from the wild. Nurseries who sell commercial cultivars do the cheating for you by employing grafting techniques that produce superior specimens. These cultivars can yield a harvest in as little as two to three years. Examples of cultivars are 'Grainger,' 'Abundance' and 'Yoder.' Also, since their long taproots make the trees difficult to transplant, make sure the nursery from which you buy plants has a sensible guarantee policy.

Grimo Nut Nursery, an online merchant for shagbark hickory tree cultivars, advises us to give careful consideration in deciding between grafted trees or those produced from seed. Says Grimo:

If one or two trees is being planted, consider the grafted tree. Grafted trees are produced to duplicate the selections that have the best flavor, production, cracking quality, and filling of the kernel.

But shagbark hickories are not grown exclusively for their nuts. In fact, one could easily rank nut production only third among the reasons why homeowners might consider planting them, as explained below.

Attractive Features (or Why This Plant Is a "Triple Threat")

The attractive features of shagbark hickory trees include:

  1. Fall foliage.
  2. Novel bark for winter interest.
  3. Edible landscaping: a tasty nut.

Shagbark hickories are deciduous and provide excellent fall foliage color (see picture). In autumn their leaves turn a golden color -- richer than the yellows displayed by the maples.

"Shagbark" hickory trees derive their picturesque name from the interesting peeling bark they bear. This unusual bark juts out from one or both ends, curling outward. Even when the leaves are long gone from the deciduous trees in winter, this feature provides landscape interest.

The fragrant nut the trees bear is said to be the tastiest from any of the hickory nut trees.

Growing Shagbark Hickories

The scientific name of shagbark hickory nut trees is Carya ovata, which translates literally as, "the oval nut." Meanwhile, the word, "hickory" comes from the Algonquin, "pawcohiccora". The nuts were an important food source for the Algonquins.

Along with plant selection, Grimo Nut Nursery provides detailed advice on planting and growing shagbark hickory nut trees. Their advice can be summarized as follows:

  • Plant in spring.
  • Grow them in a well-drained soil.
  • Plant so that the root collar rests just below ground level (ensure that the graft is above the surface).
  • Fill the hole back in with topsoil, tamping it down as you proceed.
  • Work right along: you don't want the roots to be lying around too long exposed to winds and the sun, which would cause them to dry out.
  • Water after installation.
  • "Prune the top about one fifth to promote vigor."
  • Suppress all weed growth within a yard or so of your nut tree by mulching.
  • "Generally two or more different cultivars are needed for cross pollination."

Shagbark hickory nut trees are susceptible to some insect pests and diseases. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station helps with the identification and solution of these problems.

Harvesting Hickory Nuts

When we speak of the fruit (nut) from shagbark hickory nut trees, we are really dealing with three parts:

  1. The husk.
  2. The hard outer shell under the husk.
  3. The meat of the nut within the hard outer shell.

    Refrigerate or freeze the nut meat after you have removed it from the shells.

    Do not try cracking the husk prematurely, unless you are a glutton for hard work. Rather, wait for ripening in autumn. Ripening 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 nut within (of course, even then, you have still got the hard outer nutshell to crack). For this reason, some harvesters just wait until late autumn for all the nuts to fall.

    Competing With Rodents for the Nut Harvest

    However, this strategy presents a problem: rodents and other pests are fond of shagbark hickory nuts and may get to them before you do (after all, they have a lot of time on their paws). The following are some of the pests with which you may have to compete for the nut harvest:

    • Red squirrels
    • Gray squirrels
    • Raccoons
    • Chipmunks
    • Mice

    One solution: all of these critters can be trapped humanely with Havahart traps.

    Other Uses: Additional Benefits in Growing These Famous Nut Trees

    The wood of shagbark hickory nut trees is very hard, and it is used to make ax handles, baseball bats and other products that demand a tough lumber. The wood also makes for excellent firewood. When burnt, it gives off a fragrant smoke -- thus the popularity of hickory in the meat-curing process. More importantly for homeowners, shagbark hickory nut trees attract wildlife -- and not just the pests mentioned above. Some of the larger wild birds eat shagbark hickory nuts, including turkeys.

    If you enjoy watching wild birds, the next article you may want to read is:

    Flowers That Attract Hummingbirds