Hickory Trees: Types, Leaves, Bark, and Nuts (Identification Guide)

Hickory trees are large trees sought-after for their dense canopy, shade provision, wood for the timber industry, and for the edible nuts of some hickory tree types. They belong to the walnut family and are native to temperate regions of North America.

There are a lot of things that should be known about the hickory tree but one of its most famous contributions is the smoky effect it has on BBQs.

There are also a lot of identifiable characteristics that make it a standout tree among a lot of deciduous trees. We will cover the various types of hickory trees in this post and other useful facts about the tree that will come in handy later on. 

Related: Types of Trees | Types of Pine Trees | Types of Elm Trees | Types of Cedar Trees

Hickory tree facts

There is more to hickory trees than just being considered for the shade and the many use its wood has. Before we get to the types of hickory trees, along with their unique characteristics, here are some hickory tree facts that you might want to know. 

  • It is also known as the king of BBQ wood because of its sweet and smoky effect on grilled pork, beef, poultry, and lamb. 
  • There are 19 recognized types of hickory trees. 12 of these come from North America, 6 come from Asia, and 2 come from Canada. 
  • Each hickory tree type produces unique nuts but not all hickory trees produce edible nuts. 
  • Hickory trees are not only produced for their wood but also for their edible nuts and shade which are beneficial for critters. 
  • They are tall-growing, deciduous trees reaching 100ft in height, 75ft crown width, and 7ft trunk width.
  • The bark of hickory trees is gray, furrowed, and fissured. Most types have long, curled plates and deep gaps in between fissures. 
  • It is considered a monoecious plant which means that male and flower hickory trees flower separately. Male hickories produce yellow blooms while female hickories produce terminal spikes containing 10 individual blooms. 
  • Hickory nuts are enclosed in hard shells and are split into four sections when cracked. 
  • Only four types of hickory trees produce edible nuts. These are the shellbark, shagbark, pecan, and mockernut. 
  • The bark of shagbark hickory is processed to produce sweet syrups. 
  • Pecan nuts are known for their medicinal properties. This includes avoiding the onset of gallstones and in lowering cholesterol. It is also known for its role in preventing muscle degeneration. 

Where do hickory trees grow?

In North America, hickory trees are endemic in the eastern and midwestern regions. Hickory trees are tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions but they thrive best in temperate climates where humidity is ample and it is much moist. 

Being large trees, they are often found scattered in open landscapes and in between forests of maples, oaks, and pines. They love being in sloped lands but some are naturalized in urban settings like parks and streets. 

Hickory tree leaves

Hickory tree leaves

Hickory tree leaves have an alternating arrangement. They are long, narrow, and pointy at the tip. They also have an oval-shape and have serrated edges.

The entire hickory tree foliage is usually composed of dense leaflets and one terminal blade. Interestingly, it has been found out each pinnate leaf is composed of an odd number of leaflets. Hickory tree leaves measure from 6-24 inches long. 

Hickory tree bark

The bark of hickory trees is generally gray in color turning darker as they mature. It is furrowed, ridged, and rough in texture. Some hickory tree types have bark plates curling outward giving them a shaggy look. 

Hickory tree barks pull away easily when they reach maturity. When they peel off, they reveal shallow/deep inner bark ridges. The spaces in between the inner ridges may also be wide or close. 

Hickory tree nuts

Hickory tree nuts

Not all hickory trees produce edible nuts. The nuts start as green balls gradually turning into a light to dark brown color. They are as big as golf balls and their shape is like that of an egg. The brown shells of the nuts give way to white or tan-colored kernels. The nuts of common hickory trees have a sweet taste to them and are used in pastries and in savory cuisines. 

Each shell contains one hickory kernel. The hickory tree types known for their edible nut would be shellbark hickory and shagbark hickory. Pecan trees are also associated with nut-producing hickories although technically it is not a hickory tree. This is because pecan trees belong to the genus Carya which we know is the same genus to which hickory trees belong to. 

How to identify hickory trees

The need to identify hickory trees is very important because they are known nut producers. However, since not all hickory trees produce nuts, identifying factors must be kept in mind. There are three variables that you have to look out for: bark, leaves, and nuts. 

Bark

It is typically gray in color, heavily ridged, and peels easily when the tree is already in the mature phase. It has long scaly plates with curled ends running through the bark’s length. You can easily identify shellbarks and shagbarks in terms of bark. Shellbarks have a smoother bark while shagbarks have curvier plates. 

Leaves

Hickory trees have compound pinnate, alternating leaves. It grows 17pairs of leaflets with one terminal leaf on the stem. They are long, narrow, and pointy. Shellbark hickory trees have longer leaves at 24inches. Shagbarks have shorter leaves at 10inches. 

Nuts

Edible hickory nuts are sweet, chewy, and tasty. Pecan trees and shagbarks have the tastiest and most flavorful nuts. Shellback nuts are also delicious and are considered as the largest hickory nuts of all. 

Types of hickory trees

As have been mentioned, there are only 19 recognized types of hickory trees. 12 of these are found in North America. At least a handful is found in Asia and 2 are found in Canada stretching to Ireland, Greenland, and humid regions of Europe. Here are 12 of the most common hickory trees out there. 

1. Shellbark Hickory Tree/Kingnut hickory (Carya laciniosa)

Shellbark Hickory Tree/Kingnut hickory (Carya laciniosa)
Image credit: nature.mdc.mo.gov

This is a slow-growing, large hickory tree with slender trunks. It has smooth, dark gray bark, long, curled plates with narrow grooves in between the plates.

Its foliage is composed of 9 leaflets and has very thick twigs. The leaves are serrated and turn golden brown in the fall. It is also called the kingnut because it produces the largest nuts (2.5inches long and 1.5inches wide).

It is a flowering tree and gives high-quality lumber used to produce furniture, tool handles, baseball bats, and drumsticks. 

2. Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata)

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata)
Image credit: nature.mdc.mo.gov

It has this unique disheveled look thanks to its peeling gray bark. It grows very tall at 120ft providing substantial shape in urban settings.

Young shagbarks have smooth barks but it will turn rough and shaggy at maturity. Its distinct appearance makes it a good ornamental tree.

It produces edible nuts with a buttery taste. Its leaves are long at 14inches producing 5-7leaflets at the base. The leaves are serrated turning golden yellow during fall. 

3. Southern Shagbark Hickory (Carya carolinae septentrionalis)

Southern Shagbark Hickory (Carya carolinae septentrionalis)
Image credit: carolinanature

It is one of the hickory types with the most uncanny resemblance with the shagbark hickory. It has the same peeling bark with curled plates and a shaggy look.

The prime difference is that this one has smaller nuts. It grows tall at 60-100ft with lancing branches. Leaves of this hickory tree have a length 12inches, oval in shape, and serrated on the edges. It produces 5leaflets at the base of the stem. 

4. Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra)

Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra)

It is also called smoothbark hickory. It is distinct for its giant round-shaped crown, thick, straight trunk, and grows at a height of 60-80ft. Its bark is dark gray and unlike the others, it does not peel away from the trunk.

It will, however, develop deep grooves and scales when it becomes mature. The black hickory is a popular ornamental tree used in open landscapes and wide woodlands.

The nuts of this hickory tree are pear-shaped with a bitter taste when eaten by humans. Its nuts are a favorite of pigs, however, giving it its pignut name. 

5. Pecan Tree (Carya illinoinensis)

Pecan Tree (Carya illinoinensis)

This hickory species is not only cultivated for its tasty nuts but also because of the shade it provides. It is huge at 60-130ft and produces a dense canopy spreading to 75ft. Its dark brown nuts are enclosed in tan shells.

They have a waxy texture and buttery taste. The nuts of this tree are specifically famous because of its rich taste and chewiness.

Its bark is reddish-brown in color, does not peel but with deep fissures and flat scales.

The leaves of this tree are the pointiest of all hickory types. Its foliage is fern-like in structure with each stem composed of 15leaflets at the base. 

6. Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)

This one has the hardest nut to crack and grows at 60-80ft. It typically has a round-shape crown and is also called as the white hickory.

The bark of this tree is dark gray with deep furrows and long fissures that are close together. The bark does not generally peel but some mockernut cultivars have peeling barks.

Its leaves are pale green, more rounded than oval, slightly serrated, and have 5leaflets per stem. 

7. Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis)

Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis)

This one is distinguishable for its irregularly shaped crown and inedible, bitter nuts. Its bark rarely peels and its fissures follow a diamond pattern.

At youth, the bark of this tree is smooth and light gray in color. As it matures, it becomes dark gray, develops deep fissures and gray-brown ridges. It grows to up to 115ft and its twigs are slender and light green in color.

Its leaves have 5-9 broad leaflets per stem. They have a light green color in the spring and summer and will turn golden yellow during fall. 

8. Sand Hickory (Carya pallida)

Sand Hickory (Carya pallida)

This one is slow-growing hickory reaching a height of 80ft. It has a smooth light gray bark with shallow, intersecting furrows. It is slightly ridged and fissured too.

As for the leaves, this one has glossy and smooth pinnate leaves. It typically has five-pointed leaflets. Its nuts are comparable with the red hickory in terms of size and shape. The only difference is that the nuts of this one are edible. 

9. Scrub Hickory (Carya floridana)

Scrub Hickory (Carya floridana)

It gets its scientific name because it is native to the southeastern USA and is endemic in Florida.

It is more of a shrub than a tree with its maximum height of 16ft. In some instances, this tree could grow tall at 80ft when in the wild.

Its leaves are rich green in the spring and turn pale yellow in the fall. The leaves are quite long (12inches) given its size.

It has seven leaflets at the base and produces small but edible nuts. Its bark is slender, peeling with deep ridges and long fissures. 

10. Nutmeg Hickory (Carya myristiciformis)

Nutmeg Hickory (Carya myristiciformis)
Image credit: Plant Image Library

This one is considered as one of the rarest types of native hickory trees. It is slow-growing and tall, reaching a height of 100ft. It is, however, found scattered in southern US states.

Its bark is brownish gray and peeling in long plates. Deep ridges are present in between.

Its leaves are pointy, long, and serrated on the edges. They have a bright green color and a silvery underside. Its nuts literally look like nutmegs. They are as tasty and buttery too. 

11. Red Hickory (Carya ovalis)

Red Hickory (Carya ovalis)

This one niche sloped locations with dry and sandy soils growing to a height of 100ft. It produces small, round nuts that are sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter.

It has one of the most attractive barks because of its ash gray color and flat ridges. The ridges are separated by thin, closely gapped fissures. Fast-growing cultivars of red hickory tend to have peeled barks with curled plates.

Its leaves are glossy and smooth with finely jagged edges. Seven leaflets emerge in each stem.

12. Black Hickory (Carya texana)

Black Hickory (Carya texana)

It gets its name from its dark gray bark with diamond pattern ridges. It has a smoother bark than shagbarks but they are comparable because of their slender but thick trunks and twigs.

Its leaves are oval-shaped, long, and slightly serrated on the edges. It has three pairs of lancing leaflets emerging from the stem.

It is bright green in color with paler green undersides. Its nuts are also bitter like the pignuts, providing food for wild animals and other critters. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Although we have already outlined the types of hickory trees and their identifying characteristics, there is still information that is frequently asked. Here is a rundown of some FAQs about the hickory tree that you need to know. 

What is hickory wood used for?

Aside from being known as the king of BBQ wood, hickory wood also comes with many other uses. Hickory wood is hard, stiff, and shock-resistant; a combination that cannot be found in most hardwoods. As such, hickory wood is essential in bow industries, carts, tool handles, golf shafts, lacrosse stick handles, baseball bats, drumsticks, ski sticks, and even in the production of boat paddles. 

For domestic uses, hickory wood is favorite firewood used in traditional wood-burning stoves and in fire pits. It is said that hickory wood emits a combination of sweet and woody odor that makes the food tastier. 

Hickory wood is also archived as one of the woods used in making early airplanes, ships, and rafts. Then and now, its known durability and water-resistance make it a popular wood in making hardwood floorings. They are also used in putting up lodges, cabins, and countryside homes not only for their durability but also because of their overall rustic appearance. 

Are hickory nuts edible for humans?

Did you know that hickory nuts are considered as the most calorie-dense nuts in the wild? It has a whopping 193 calories per nut according to science. 

All hickory nuts are generally edible but some are just more tasty than others. Among the common hickory trees, only the black hickory has bitter nuts. The four tastiest hickory nuts include those coming from mockernut, pecan, shagbark, and shellbark. Pignuts are also edible but not for humans as they are very bitter. It provides food for hogs and other animals, however. 

Pecan nuts are the most commercialized hickory nut. It is tasty, chewy, and used in many cuisines both baked and savory. Shagbark nuts are also commercialized. They are considered as the tastiest hickory nuts with the most buttery taste. Shagbark nuts are very underrated but they are used in home cooking and in commercial nut production. 

Are hickory trees worth money?

Computing for a tree’s worth depends on its timber quality and durability. The most valuable trees when it comes to woodwork would be walnuts, oaks, maples, and of course, hickory. Like all other trees, hickory trees are graded as high, medium, or low quality. High-quality hickory wood is at par with the famous red oak amounting to $20-50 per log. 

Medium quality hickories are used in cabinetry and other crafts. Tagged as low-quality oak are not put to waste because they are sought after by restaurateurs for their grilled meats. Other than that, the nuts are commercially sold as they are used for baking and savory cuisines. Nuts that are not that edible provide food for wildlife and other animals. With these as the basis, we can say that hickory trees are worth the money.  

How do I know if a hickory tree is sick?

Hickory trees are well-known for their resiliency but when the tough gets going, there are specific diseases that you should look out for. 

Leaf spot

If you see large red spots on leaf tops and brown spots underneath, you should start worrying. But when early defoliation kicks in, that is one serious sign that your hickory tree is dying. Before applying insecticides, you should carefully dispose of the infected leaves first. 

Verticillium wilt

This becomes visible when one part of the tree is wilting or completely dying off. When all you could see is brown, that is when you know that the tree is dying. 

Powdery mildew

This one is made evident by white powdery spots during the growing season. It will not cause the death of the tree itself but it will make it weak and vulnerable to other diseases. 

Cankers

This happens when the bark of the hickory tree is ‘wounded’. When a hoard of fungi gets in the ridges and fissures, cankers will surely eat off from it and if not given the proper intervention, it will surely leave dead spots and will die. 

So basically, like all other hardwood trees, hickory trees are not that disease-proof. More often than not, they are also vulnerable to common wood diseases leaving common evidence of tree death. 

Do caterpillars like Hickory leaves?

Yes, specifically white webworms. These caterpillars are notorious for their love of hardwoods. They stay on their leaves for 4-8 weeks.

The first attack on hardwoods like the hickory tree happens in between May to June.

The second generation of webworms are larger and can produce infestation. They produce silk webs in the leaves and at the end of the branches of hickory trees. This is not a serious case but overfeeding off the leaves may cause damage to the tree. 

Conclusion

Hickory trees are very functional and hardy trees. They are not only good canopy/shade trees but their durable and quality wood support a lot of products in the timber industry.

Their wood is used for drumsticks, paddles, golf clubs, and baseball bats. It is also used for cabinets, furniture, and boxes.

In carpentry, hickory trees are used in constructing log cabins, cottages, and also floorboards. And speaking of the wood it produces, it is the wood behind the hickory style BBQ and its nuts are edible and nutritious.

With all of these, there is no wonder why hickory trees remain to be popular. As shaggy as it may seem, it is a tree of many functions.

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