Hickory trees

Wendy S. Delmater
By Wendy S. Delmater on Fri, Jun 28, 2013 - 8:24am

Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) has the tastiest nuts

Everyone knows walnuts, almonds, and pistachios from the supermarket--and we may love pecans (a type of hickory, Carya illinoinensis)--but few consider other hickory nuts. That's a shame: they're delicious and the tree is gorgeous. And gardening projects don't get much more long term than planting hickory trees: some will grow and produce for 500 years. But they take up a lot of space - see the picture above; some grow 90-ft tall. And there is a long wait for that payoff: plant a hickory now and you will not get your first food from the tree for seven to ten years.

Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra megacarpa) with immature fruit. Wildlife loves these.

But consider the the payoff. With a hickory tree you not only get nutmeats. You get shade, and hardwood suitable for tool handles and smoking meats. Hickories also invite wildllife into your ecosystem. If you're a hunter or just like to watch squirrels (or keep them off other nut-bearing trees) a pignut hickory might be a good addition to your property.

I've highlighted the two I am familiar with but you can probably find a variety that will grow in your climate. There are 11 to 12 varieties native to the United States, two to four from Canada, four from Mexico, and five or six species are native to China, Indochina, and India.

The nuts of some species are yummy, while others are bitter and only suitable for animal feed - so do your research. Shagbark and shellbark hickory, along with the pecan, are the most popular human food trees.

When cultivated for their nuts, grafted trees from the same source can't pollinate each other: two or more cultivars must be planted together for successful pollination. Wild varieties or non-grafted trees will usually polinate each other. They have yellow catakin flowers that polinate via wind.

We're planting nuts from a neighbor's hickory in the forest behind our property. Wth any luck there will be nuts for all, for generations to come.

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Sebastian8's picture
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Thanks for posting this!

We have a shagbark hickory and the nuts are unbelievably sweet! The tree is awsome as well, as it does not loose branches in storms often either. The nuts are a little time consuming to shell and takes patience. Anyone have any useful tips on shelling them?

dan allen's picture
dan allen
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shelling hickories

No good tips on hickories, but Samuel Thayer's edible wild plant series (The Forager's Harvest, Nature's Garden) have THE BEST tips on many other wild foods.

His chapter on black walnuts is the best I've found anywhere.  I imagine he'll do hickories in a future volume.  

-- Dan  :-)

Doug's picture
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Posts: 3200
Here's a tip I just heard for rooting cuttings

This comes from a nursery guy who has been doing it for years and reportedly hasn't found a species it doesn't work on.  Cut some small branches from a willow, cut the branches up into short (think a couple inches) pieces and soak them in water for a few days creating what is essentially willow tea.  Then, take the cuttings from the species you want to propagate and either soak them in the willow tea or put them in soil and water them with the willow tea.

I've tried rooting some cuttings with a commercial medium and had no success.  If anyone tries it, report on your success.


mike dickenson's picture
mike dickenson
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hickory trees

Wonderful post!  I worship the Creator and not the created, but I must say, magnificent trees like the hickory surely do remind me of Him.

One of my personal favorites to consider is the American Elm.  Though it does not provide nuts for food, it does provide unmatched beauty and environmental modification, which will be highly desirable when air conditioning is not as available as it is now.  The disease resistant cultivars, Princeton, Harmony, and others, grow quickly and provide abundant shade.  Their roots travel deeply to avoid damage to structures.  With canopies beyond 50 feet tall and 50 feet wide, these trees are unmatched in North America for their beauty and appeal.

Tall's picture
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Posts: 564
Wind pollination

Great topic! As you mention, pecans and hickories are wind pollinated. Spacing of 40 - 80 feet (max) is recommended between trees to allow sufficient wind pollination.

Something I have learned the hard way is that although a well-drained planting site is required, grafted nut trees need a LOT of water to establish successfully; 2- 5 inches of water per week for at least the first year, I babysit them for up to 3 years and still water my 8 year old grafted trees during long dry periods.

I am convinced that so called graft failures of newly planted nut trees are primarily due to under watering.

cgolias's picture
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Posts: 34
A couple other points on Hickories

This is a great post! A couple other reasons I think hickories can be seen as superior to other nuts.

1. Unlike Walnuts they don't release the alleopathic chemical juglone which prevents some other plants' growth.

2. They yield much more heavily and are more disease resistant than hazelnuts.

3. They have a wider climatic range for US growers than the pecan (a member of the hickory genus Carya) or almond.

4. Unlike American Chestnut, wild non-selected varieties are quite disease resistant and delicious, making seeds free.

As Wendy mentioned, they have perhaps the most useful wood of a nut tree (if you exclude the beautiful veneer made from Walnut..I just think wood for smoking and tool handles is more useful, though walnut will fetch more on the market. . to the point I have heard of people's trees being poached!). If wood is your purpose, consider coppicing or pollarding the trees instead of cutting down the tree and removing the stump when you harvest.

There are, however, a couple caveats. The shelling of the nuts is a bit of a headache. I have heard of people putting the nuts in a bag and running them over with a car. I personally use a hammer. I have heard of thin shelled varieties, and ones with larger better-tasting nutmeats in some permaculture books but have not been able to track them down. They aren't common in nurseries because seedlings' long taproot is relatively difficult to accomodate (giving them the undeserved reputation of being difficult to transplant). This nursery is an exception: http://www.gonativetrees.com/hickories.htm

For those interested in growing hickories, you also might be interested in low-tanin Ashworth Selection Bur Oak  (Quercus macrocarpa) trees see pg 16 of the linked pdf: http://www.sln.potsdam.ny.us/2013lcataloglores2.pdf

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