Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) is native to most of the eastern United States and much of Ontario and Quebec, Canada. It is found in a variety of sites, most often on upland sites in the north in association with oaks and other hardwoods. Young seedlings and saplings can survive in the shady understory for many years until the older trees die, exposing them to sunlight; then they grow more rapidly. Hickories don’t generally dominate a site; they are usually in mixtures.
The common name of shagbark hickory comes from the distinctive peeling bark on mature trees that gives it a shaggy appearance. Other common names include shellbark, scalybark, and upland hickory. The bark of young trees is smooth and gray. ‘Hickory’ comes from the Algonquian Indian word for the tree’s nutmeat, ‘pawcohiccora’. The nuts are edible and sweet-flavored. They can be used in place of pecans in baking. Many wildlife species eat the nuts of shagbark hickory including squirrels, chipmunks and to a lesser degree, black bears, foxes, rabbits, and mice and birds such as mallards, wood ducks, bobwhites and wild turkeys.
Besides the distinctive bark of the mature trees, identification features include alternate, pinnately compound leaves, a bold and jagged branching habit, spring flowers, and nuts. The leaves are composed of 5 (rarely 3 or 7) leaflets with the basal pair being smaller. Leaf edges are finely serrated. Male and female flowers are produced on the same tree (monoecious) in the spring. The male flowers are yellow-green catkins and the female flowers are very short and in clusters at the branch tips. Nuts are round to ovate with a thick husk. The husk is green at first, browning as it matures. When the husk dries it splits open along four grooves exposing the nut. The shell of the nut is fairly thin and light brownish white.
The wood of the shagbark hickory is very strong and resilient. It was/is used for axles, axes, plows and other tool handles. Native Americans used it for bows. Other uses include furniture, cabinetry, flooring, and specialty products like ladder rungs, dowels, and athletic equipment. It is a desirable firewood, having a high heat value and burning evenly. Charcoal made from hickories can be used to give food and smoked meats a hickory-smoked flavor.
The bark of the shagbark hickory can be used to make a syrup. It is much like maple syrup but with a unique flavor. Unlike maple syrup, the extract used comes from the bark, not the sap. Hickory syrup is only available from a few places and one of them is right here in Connecticut. Turkeywoods Farm of Mystic, CT produces it and you can find out more on their website at www.turkeywoodsfarm.com.
Shagbark hickory is not widely used as an ornamental but can be an attractive specimen in a large yard or park. It is a tall tree, growing to a mature height of about 120 feet with a width of about 40 feet. Shagbark hickory is adapted to a variety of sites and soil types. It is an important shade tree in residential neighborhoods that are built on previously wooded sites. Disadvantages include slow growth compared to many tree species and some mess created by a regular dropping of leaflets, twigs, immature fruits, husks and debris from squirrel activity from midsummer through late fall.
All photos from the UConn Plant Database at www.hort.uconn.edu