Hickory trees are resilient, tough, beautiful, and generous beings. They make the best tasting nut in the world, will grow out of almost any soil, have the hardest wood, and live for a century or more. Why human civilization is not working with hickory trees more is a mystery. The trees are more than deserving of our attention.
There are several species of hickory and significant variation within each species. Many species of hickory hybridize with each other in the wild and under cultivation. I am only describing the few species that I am familiar with (here in the Northeastern U.S.). There are other species in different parts of the country.
Shagbark (carya ovata): This is the tree with the classic hickory bark that looks like it is peeling off in great vertical strips. Shagbark hickory is considered to be the best flavored of all the hickories. Nuts can be as small as a marble or as big as a golf ball. Shagbark will grow in just about any soil. The bark strips are used to smoke and flavor many foods.
Shellbark (carya lacinosa): Very similar in appearance and growth habits to shagbark. Much bigger sized nuts, sometimes accompanied with a thicker shell.
Bitternut (carya cordiformis): Just like it sounds, bitternut is bitter, really, really bitter. The nuts are small, roughly the size of a nickel. The nuts have a pointed tip, and the rest of the nut is very smooth and round. The husks peel off and are not segmented like on shagbark, shellbark, or pecan. Contrary to a lot of literature, bitternuts are readily consumed by squirrels and other rodents. I have heard that the oil is not bitter, but have yet to try pressing the nuts. They are the most difficult of all hickory nuts to shell. The bark is smooth and never shags out. Older trees have beautiful smooth root flares. Bitternut hickory typically occurs in rich bottomland soils, but is also found in upland woods and hedgerows.
Pignut (carya glabra): Pignuts have a smooth bark, not shaggy, but more rough than bitternut. The bark protrudes a little and has an interlacing pattern. The husks are not segmented like shagbark, but instead peel off like bitternut. The nuts are very difficult to shell, but the flavor is very good. A lot of literature suggests that pignuts do not taste good and they are only fit for pigs. This has not been my experience, I think they taste great, similar to shagbark.
Pecan (carya illionensis): This is the most famous of all the hickories because it is so widely consumed and cultivated. Many wild pecans have a small, thick shelled nut. It is only through breeding, that people have been able to develop the thin shelled pecans we are used to. Pecans have received their breeding work because they are able to bear nuts at a young age. This allows breeders to make selections and crosses within a single career or lifetime.
The Tree in the Woods
Hickories are a big part of the hardwood forests around here. They are full sized canopy trees, able to compete with maples and oaks. They occur in pure groves and in mixed forests. They are opportunistic and do well in hedgerows and forest edges where sunlight and weeds are abundant. Hickories put down a strong deep tap root upon sprouting. They will persist through severe abuse, enduring tremendous browse, drought, and competition.
Hickories cast a shade of medium density. They are not so dark as a maple, but not so light as locust. They will allow shrubs and weeds to grow under their closed canopy.
Hickory trees of all species are a serious magnet for squirrels, mice, chipmunks and other small forest dwellers with sharp teeth. This in turn benefits hawks, owls, foxes, and the like.
Hickories are irregular croppers. They will rarely make two crops in a row. Usually, hickories will fruit heavily every 3 years or so. Some groves can go 6 years or more between heavy mast years. I am blessed to have hundred year old hickory trees nearby that drop a loads of nuts just about every other year. This boom and bust cycle of fruiting can wreak havoc on rodent populations. In a well balanced nut grove or forest, several species of nut trees take turns having mast years. Hickories can be one player in a collection of oak, chestnut, black walnut, butternut, beech, pine, and hazel.
Hickory is one of the toughest woods on earth. It burns as hot as anthracite coal. It is a beautiful two toned wood, with light sapwood and a darker heartwood. Hickory is used commercially for hardwood floors, cabinets, and tool handles.
I have carved several handles and long bows from hickory. When split along the grain (rather than sawn through), it is virtually unbreakable. A green hickory branch can be bent into a full circle easily without cracking.
Hickory is a real gift of the eastern forests that the rest of the world lacks. We are really lucky to have the trees growing 80ft tall in our woods.
Hickory nuts really are the best tasting nut in the world. That is not an exaggeration or an overstatement. There’s nothing that compares with a kernel of shagbark. Roughly 70% oil by weight, hickories are very rich. I think all the species taste amazing except for bitternut. Pecan is probably fourth on my list of best tasting hickory. Shagbark, shellbark, and pignut are the top three in that order.
There are plenty of ways to enjoy wild hickory nuts. I have gathered and eaten hundreds of pounds of hickories over the last decade. A few years ago was an incredible mast year and my family was able to gather a pickup truck worth of shagbark nuts from 4 large trees.
I often hear people complain that they can’t gather the nuts because of squirrels. I really don’t understand. The squirrels are so small and they are scared of you. Whenever I see squirrels gathering nuts, I grab a bucket and walk over. I can gather so much more than a dozen squirrels if I have a bucket. They have to run back and forth to store each nut away. Squirrels constantly running across the road in the fall is a sure indicator that nuts are ready. Check and see what they are up to, it is a good way to find treasure trees.
Once hickory nuts are gathered, they need to be husked and dried. You can wait on husking pignuts, they can just dry in the husk. Shagbark and shellbark will mold if the husks are not removed promptly. Some trees will drop nuts right out of the husk for you. It is no big deal to husk shagbarks and shellbarks. The husk pops off with fingers easily. If the husk is stuck to the nut, it is not ripe. They will never ripen off the tree, so if the husk sticks, just forget it and find ones that are ripe.
As soon as the nuts are out of the husks, they need to be dried. Simple air drying on a counter top or on stacks of screen doors will do. I dry them for about a week before storing. They can be stored at room temperature in onion sacks or brown paper bags for years. We’ve had hickory nuts here that we ate 3 years after gathering and they tasted fine without any rancidity. The key is to store them in the shell. Once they are cracked open, the kernels will age and oxidize. If you want to store shelled nuts, then keep them in the fridge or freezer.
Shelling hickory nuts works best with a heavy duty nut cracker. I highly recommend the Master Nut Cracker which is made in Missouri. For years, I only knew of a hammer and a stone. If you’re cracking the nuts out with a hammer, hold them on edge. You’ll get much bigger kernel pieces if the nuts are cracked along the seams rather than just lain flat down.
The kernels are wonderful raw by themselves. They are also an excellent addition to cookies and cereal.
Cracking hickory nuts takes time. It is doable, but it does take a while. On some productive winter evenings, I will crack out a pint of nut meat in an hour or so. This is great for snacking, but difficult to sustain yourself on. To really consume hickory nuts as a part of your diet and fill your body with their tremendous power, then boiling them is the way to go.
I learned about this method after reading about traditional Cherokee uses of hickory. They used hickory nuts as staples in their cooking. Families had hundreds of bushels of nuts stored. They would crush and boil the nuts for days to extract oil that would eventually float to the surface. I use a modified version of this. My family, using hammers or mallets, crush hickory nuts, shells and all on a big stone. We boil nuts and shells together. The more crushed up the nuts, the better. After they have been boiling for a while (10 minutes to 2 days is how long we boil for, as we just throw the pot on the wood stove), a lot of the nut meat will float to the surface and the shells will sink. The nut meat can be skimmed off and eaten and or added to other dishes. The broth is a great fortifying drink. It can be drunk by itself or have cocoa, maple syrup, or any other spices you’d like to add. In early spring, we like to make hickory brew by boiling the nuts in maple sap rather than water. Throw in some chopped black birch twigs and you have the best possible drink from the forest.
Hickory brew has been a game changer for us. Its allowed us to really use and even sell hickory nuts. We’ve brought the drink to festivals and shared with many friends. It is a welcome, hearty drink on chilly days that will line your bones with the strength of a hickory tree.
Hickories are most commonly propagated by seed. Cuttings are not a practical method. Grafting is difficult but is certainly done. One of the most difficult aspects of propagating hickory is transplanting young trees.
Hickories put down a strong tap root when they sprout and damage to it can often kill the tree.
Hickory nuts require a cold moist stratification to germinate. They can dry a little bit, but really should be kept moist. In nature, nuts are planted by squirrels under leaf litter. Mimicking these conditions is the key to sprouting hickory nuts. I store hickory seed nuts in damp sand either in bags in the fridge, in buckets in the basement, or in buckets buried outside. It is essential to protect hickory nuts from being eaten by rodents and that is why I over winter them in a controlled space.
I plant them out in beds in the spring and keep a vigilant eye out for rodent tunnels. The nuts sprout very late, usually in June or July. It is easy to forget about them because they come up so late.
There are a few methods to avoid transplant damage with hickory. The first is to directly seed the nut into where you want the tree to grow permanently. This works well, especially if you can keep weeds under control and protect the seed and then the seedling from rodents and birds.
The second way to ease transplanting of the tap root is to raise the trees in pots. Personally I hate raising trees in pots. They need frequent watering, require potting soil, and lead to strangely shaped root systems.
A third method is to raise them in air pruned beds. This leads to a fibrous root system and also makes it easier to keep rodents out of the bed. For a detailed explanation of air prune beds, you can read an article I wrote about them HERE.
The Northern Pecan
Pecan hickories are cold hardy. Many selections can survive zone 4 winters. However, it is not the cold hardiness that has kept pecan production out of the Northeast. It is the short season and lack of heat. Pecans take a long time to ripen their nuts. Here in the north, the nuts are usually killed by a hard freeze before they are able to mature. Work has been done to find Pecans that are able to ripen in shorter, cooler summers. I have not been able to find a good seed source for trees that could work here. If anyone has pecans able to ripen nuts in zone 4/5, please contact me, as I would be interested in purchasing or trading for seed.
Working with Hickory
A few years ago, I found some excellent shagbark hickory trees cropping heavily along the street. The nuts were mostly falling on someone’s lawn, so I knocked on the door to ask permission to gather. The man who answered the door was glad to have me take as many as I could. He explained to me that he had planted the trees 30 years ago by just sticking some nuts in the ground. That story says a lot. With a few minutes of effort, that man had set something very powerful in motion. If we work with hickory, we can establish groves of trees that produce easy to gather large nuts.
Planting hickory nuts is fine by itself, but when we select unique and excellent trees, then we can take hickory nuts to a higher level. People have taken small wild grasses and through selecting seed sources been able to cultivate wheat, corn and a host of other grains. When breeding hickory, we can look to the famous Pecan hickory tree.
Pecans have been bred to have thin shells. They can start bearing in 3-5 years, so breeders are able to work with them. Other species of hickory can take 10-30 years to make nuts. This has been a big impediment to breeders making crosses through generations of seedlings. Personally, I think that is a poor excuse for our lack of attention on breeding hickory. We have institutions and universities that persist through generations of people. There are also countless individuals who would love to leave behind something for future generations, like a planting of hickory trees. Surely, the resources to work with hickory exist. What a gift we can kick down the road, if we can be part of the journey toward a thin shelled shagbark hickory the size of a golf ball. The genetics do exist.
Some work has been done making selections of hickory trees. There are grafted cultivars of hickory available from a few specialized nurseries. If we plant the seeds of those trees or of other excellent sources, what new trees might we find? I have found an excellent shagbark hickory growing in a cemetery of revolutionary war vets. The tree appears to be as old as the cemetery. It has outstanding form and health, and bears beautiful football shaped nuts that crack out very well.
Maybe you will plant a hickory tree, maybe you’ll carve some of that wood, or burn it in your stove, maybe you’ll eat hickory nuts in pies and ice cream and all by themselves around a fire. Whatever you do, I hope that you enjoy hickory trees. They are one of the many gifts from the forest to you.