Trees are easiest to identify when they are in leaf. However, when trees are not in leaf, they must be identified by their twigs or by their bark. One tree species that can be easily identified by its bark is the Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata [P. Miller] K. Koch).
Shagbark Hickories are members of the Order Fagales, the Family Juglandaceae, the Subfamily Juglandoideae, the Tribe Juglandeae, and the Subtribe Caryinae. The generic name, Carya, is from the ancient Greek word, kapuov, which is “nut”. It was also named for Carya, goddess of the Nut Tree. The specific epithet, ovata, is Latin for “egg-shaped” referring to the shape of the leaflets.
The common name, Hickory, is from the Algonquin Indian word, pockerchicory, pohickery, pokahickory, pawcohiccora, or powhiccorri. It was later shortened into hequery, hickery, hiccory, or hackery.
Previous scientific synonyms for this tree were Hicoria alba Britton, Hicoria borealis Ashe, Hicoria ovata (P. Miller) Britton, and Juglans ovata P. Miller. Other common names for this tree are King Nut, Red-heart Hickory, Scalybark Hickory, Shellbark Hickory, Sweet Walnut, Upland Hickory, White Hickory, and White Walnut.
Shagbark Hickories are a slow-growing and a long-lived tree. The young seedlings are shade-tolerant and the mature trees are only moderately shade-tolerant.
DESCRIPTION OF THE SHAGBARK HICKORY
Height: Its height is 60-150 feet. It is a medium to large tree.
Diameter: Its trunk diameter is 1-6 feet.
Crown: Its crown is rounded, oblong, narrow, and open. The branches may spread up to 25 feet. The upper branches are ascending and the lower branches are descending.
Trunk: Its trunk is short, straight, slender, cylindrical, and has little tapering.
Twigs: Its twigs are stout, dark red-brown and hairy when young. When mature, they are dark gray and smooth. Its lenticels are pale orange, elongated, and not raised. Its pith is solid and is 5-angled or star-shaped. Its leaf scars are alternate and are heart-shaped or 3-lobed. It has numerous bundle scars. Eastern Cottontail Rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus J.A. Allen) and White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus Zimmermann) often browse upon these twigs.
Buds: Its lateral buds are alternate, about ½ inches long, and diverge from the twig. Its terminal bud is ovoid; pointed, blunt, or rounded at its tip; about ¾-1 inches long; and has 3-6 loose, overlapping scales. The upper scales are lightly hairy and are yellow-green when young but turn red or brown when they unfold. The lower 2-4 scales are paired with abutting edges and are loosely spreading. These scales do not shed after they unfold. Squirrels (Family Sciuridae) may eat these buds.
Leaves: Its leaves are deciduous, alternate, and pinnately compound. Each leaf is about 6-17 inches long and has 3-7 (usually 5) leaflets. The leaves are green to yellow-green and smooth on the top and are paler and slightly hairy on the bottom. They are aromatic. They become bright yellow to golden brown in the fall. Its petioles are stout and are either smooth or hairy.
Each leaflet is about 3-10 inches long, about ½-5 inches wide, sessile, and ovate to elliptic. They have a short-pointed tip and taper to the base. They are widest near the middle.
The terminal leaflet is the largest and may be slightly stalked. The 2 highest lateral leaflets are larger than the 2 lower lateral leaflets.
These leaflets have finely serrated margins. The young leaflets have 2-3 white, dense, hairy tufts near the tip of each tooth.
Flowers: Its flowers are monoecious. Both sexes are borne separately upon the same tree. The male (staminate) flowers are crowded upon 3 green, slender, drooping, 4-5 inch long, hairy catkins. Each male flower has 3-10 stamens with bearded yellow anthers and 3-parted scales. The female (pistillate) flowers are about ¼ inch long, erect, cone-shaped, and are arranged in clusters or petallets of 2-5. Each female flower has 2 large, fringed stigmas; 4 styles; and 4 fused bracts. These flowers have no petals but have 4 minute sepals. They are wind-pollinated. This pollen can cause hay fever. Flowering season is April-June.
Fruit: Its fruit is a nut. Each nut is encased in a woody; smooth or hairy; yellow-green, dark brown, red-brown, or black husk that is ¼ -½ inches thick. The nut and husk are about 1-3 inches wide. These husks split lengthwise at their grooves, down to the base, and into 4 segments. The nut is spherical or ovate, 4-angled, nearly white, and has a hard and thin shell. About 100 nuts equal 1 lb. Squirrels may bury these nuts and produce new trees. The nut’s kernel is light brown; sweet; and has 2 long, irregular lobes. Mallards (Anas platyryhnchos L.), Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa L.), Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo L.), Northern Bobwhite Quails (Colinus virginianus L.), Virginia Opossums (Didelphis virginiana Kerr), Mice (Genus Mus), Squirrels, White-tailed Deer, Raccoons (Procyon lotor L.), Foxes (Tribe Vulpini), and Swine (Genus Sus) eat these nuts. A bumper crop of nuts is produced about every 3 years. Fruiting season is September-November.
Bark: Its young bark is thin, smooth, gray, and orange striped. Its mature bark is dark gray and is shaggy. The thin, 3-6 inch wide, flat, plates peel into 1-3 foot long, loose strips that separate longitudinally at 1 or both ends and curve outward from the tree. This peeled bark may persist for several years before falling. This bark may protect the tree from some climbing Mammal (Class Mammalia) species. The loose bark provides cover for Tree Frogs (Genus Hyla), Brown Creepers (Certhia americana Bonaparte), Indiana Bats (Myotis sodalist Miller & Allen).
Wood: Its wood is strong, heavy, hard, tough, durable, elastic, close- or fine-grained, ring-porous, and shock-resistant.
Roots: Its roots are a deep taproot with few laterals. This tree is tolerant of construction and of other human activities. The tree does not transplant easily.
Habitat: Its habitats consist of mature woodlands. It is a climax forest species. It is often found with various Oak (Genus Quercus) species. They are rarely seen in pure stands. Its northern habitats consist of upland dry soils. Its southern habitats consist of moist, well-drained bottomland soils.
Range: Its range consists of much of the eastern U.S. and parts of southeastern Canada. It is not found in the upper Great Lakes, upper New England, Florida, or along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. A few located near Lake Huron and the Georgian Bay were probably planted by the Native Americans.
Uses of the Shagbark Hickory Wood and Bark:
Shagbark Hickory wood had many uses. It is one of the best quality wood and the most commercially important Hickory in the U.S. Over 80% of the wood was used for making tool handles. The rest were used for agricultural implements, bows and arrows, gunstocks, ladders, sporting goods, wagons and wagon wheel spokes, barn door hinges, barrel and bucket hoops, basketry, lumber, veneer, pulpwood, furniture, cabinetry, paneling, flooring, fencing, charcoal, and firewood.
Before using, the wood must be properly seasoned. It can easily shrink, check, or warp. It can decay upon contact with moisture. This wood splits easily when nailed and doesn’t easily adhere to glue.
Shagbark Hickory wood makes good fuel. It produces much heat, is aromatic, burns slowly, and produces little or no smoke if the wood is dried. One cord of this wood (4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long) produces at much heat as 1 ton of anthracite coal, 175 gallons of fuel oil, or 24,000 cubic feet of natural gas. The wood ashes were used in making lye soap. The green wood, which produces much smoke, was used for smoking meat, such as ham or bacon, to give it a hickory flavor. Unfortunately, smoking the meat also makes it carcinogenic.
The bark was made into boxes. The inner bark was peeled in the spring and was used for making rope and woven chair seats. The inner bark was also used as a yellow dye. The bark plates were used for making a green dye.
Uses of the Shagbark Hickory Fruit:
Shagbark Hickory nuts are sweet and edible. They can be eaten straight or mixed with other foods.
The kernels were often ground, boiled, and strained. The milky oil, called hickory milk, from the boiled kernels was skimmed and used as a butter substitute. The oil was also used in lamps. The kernels were used in making cornbread, corn cakes, hominy, or cornmeal mush.
The nuts are highly nutritious. They contain about 15% protein, about 15% carbohydrates and about 60-70% fat. A single oz. contains about 200 calories. These nuts also contain iron, phosphorous, potassium, trace minerals, and vitamins A and C.
The nut husks had a use. Some Native American tribes used the crushed green husks to stun fish. However, this practice is now illegal in many areas.
Medicinal Uses of the Shagbark Hickory:
Shagbark Hickory has some medicinal uses. Many Native American tribes used this plant. An inner bark tea is used as a diuretic and as a purgative. It is also taken internally and externally for treating arthritis. The bark was used as a poultice for treating arthritis. The young shoots were steamed and inhaled for treating convulsions and headaches.
The bark of the Shagbark Hickory can be made into sweet syrup. The bark is gathered, scrubbed under cold water, and toasted in an oven for 10-15 minutes at 350 degrees F. The toasted bark is then simmered (not boiled) in water for 20-25 minutes or until the water volume is reduced 25%. Afterwards, the bark is removed and the colored and flavored water is simmered for 30 more minutes. Cane sugar is added at a ratio of 1½ to 2 parts sugar to one part water.
The syrup can be used like Maple (Genus Acer) syrup. It is sweet-tasting and contains magnesium.
Shagbark Hickories have some cultural history. This tree’s history goes back before the arrival of the Europeans.
Remains of Hickory nuts have been excavated in archaeological sites in Ohio and in other states. Early European explorers of the New World recorded observing Hickory nuts in Native American villages.
These trees are a symbol of strength. General Andrew Jackson, our 7th President, was nicknamed “Old Hickory” by his Tennessee militia troops during the War of 1812. They said he was as “tough as hickory”. His grave at his Hermitage mansion is surrounded by 6 Shagbark Hickories.
In 1907, Will D. Cobb wrote a song titled School Days, School Days. Here are the 1st four lines of most of the song’s verses:
School days, school days
Dear old golden rule days
Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic
Taught to the tune of a hickory stick…
In 1922, American poet, Carl Sandburg, wrote a poem about the Shagbark Hickory.
IN the moonlight under a shag-bark hickory tree
Watching the yellow shadows melt in hoof-pools.
Listening to the yes and the no of a woman’s hands,
I kept my guess why the night was glad.
The night was lit with a woman’s eyes.
The night was crossed with a woman’s hands,
The night kept humming an undersong.
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