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Shagbark hickory: neglected nut of the central woodlands.

The black walnut, Juglans nigra, is a tree famous for its nuts, which are harvested en masse each October. (Recently in Missouri there was a black walnut frenzy, as the nuts' price rose over 25% in one year.) Yet there is little public interest in another member of the juglandaceous family, the shagbark hickory.

While the black walnut trees are surrounded by nut pickers scrambling to get every nut, the shagbark hickory lives a quiet life in moist and somewhat open areas. (Alexander Martin writes that it "prefers moist soil and is often found with oaks in open woods.") Unlike the aforementioned walnut, the hickory nut is not flocked to by nutpickers. There is much less planting of the hickory nut (shagbark hickory) than of the black walnut. One may occasionally find one or two planted by a fence or a few on a small homestead, or in similar places in the country, but it is virtually never found in town settings. One reason for the hickory nut's underrepresentation is the habitat in which it thrives, or rather, does not thrive. The tree fares poorly in many town environments, and thrives almost exclusively in rural and sub-suburban habitats, thus placing it at a disadvantage to the walnut, which is more tolerant of town conditions. The hickory tree does not tend to be found growing in large numbers in the open; it prefers some shade. Another reason that would-be nutpickers do not gather hickory nuts is that they cannot differentiate the shagbark hickory from its bitternut and mockernut relatives, which do not bear edible nuts. A simple way to tell the difference between them is the shell; the outer green shells of inevitable bitternuts and mockernuts taper at their ends as if puckering their lips to give a kiss. The shagbark hickory nut does not. If you know where to search you can find many of these trees, especially in the south central U.S. it is important to distinguish between the shagbark and its bitter-nutted relatives.

The black walnut tree tends not to grow as straight as the hickory, especially when among other trees. Its smooth-skinned nut husk is easier to open because of its seams, as well as that its outer husk is dry (and not interwoven into the inner shell as the walnut's is). Also, the hickory nut often splits its outer husk, thus making the nut easily retrievable. The comparison between the inner shells of /. nigra and C. ovata show even more contrast. A black walnut shell will damage a standard nutcracker, rather than the other way around. The shagbark hickory nut is, literally, a tough nut to crack if compared to Carpathian and English walnuts, most pecan varieties, etc., however, a strong nutcracker will indeed crack it, and there is substantially more nutmeat within than would be found in a black walnut.

A shagbark hickory essentially resembles an English walnut in miniature, considering shape as well as flavor, although it is as if the hickory nut is a flatter as well as smaller version. The nut has a distinctive hickory smell when not opened. The nuts fall to the ground and are not often bothered by pests or larvae as much as other nuts are. The nuts are often found low on the tree, and squirrels collect the nuts (sometimes ending up planting trees). The shagbark hickory tree keeps its leaves for some time after the nuts have dropped. The nutting season for this particular tree nut is August-September in the southern part of its range, September-October most places, and stretching into November in the northern areas. These seasons are listed for the time of actual tree nut gathering; nuts can be collected from the ground safely for a long time after the listed seasons.

The shagbark hickory tree is easily noticed due to its large-flaked or smooth bark and, often, a line going up the first few meters of the trunk. Unlike the walnut leaf, the hickory leaf has a leaflet at the end, larger than the rest of the leaflets. This applies to all hickories, including the pecan, which is often considered a different nut but is actually a related hickory, Carya illinoensis. The pecan's leaves more closely resemble those of a walnut than those of other hickories do. Although the walnut and the hickory/pecan genus are distant genera, they do indeed belong to the same family: Juglandaceae. Shagbark hickories have the least leaflets of all hickories: five to a "leaf."

When nutting for hickory nuts, it is important not to pick up the mockernuts and bitternuts. They have less green on their hulls than do shagbark hickory nuts. One source states that one can either "gather the nuts as they fall, or shake the tree." Nut pickers can easily locate the trees by their pole-straight appearance in many cases, as well as the markers described above.

Shagbark hickory nuts can store for many months in their inner shells, if kept in optimal conditions. A prime example of such conditions would be keeping the nuts in a breathable sack, mesh bag, or the like, and in a cool, dry location.

Reasons for lack of public interest in the hickory nut may include an overriding interest in the wood's value as an aromatic fuel for smoking food, and for the aroma it produces in the air when burnt. The wood does not need to come from the shagbark, however, it may come from mockernut and bitternut hickory trees. According to some sources, there are more of these than of the shagbark in many areas of the Central Forests, although the shagbark certainly is plentiful in some areas. Martin writes that the bitternut's bitterness, preventing it from being used as food for any creature of the forest as well as humans, allows more of the nuts to sprout into trees.

There is sufficient diversity within the native species shagbark hickory to grow cross compatible trees of the Carya ovata (cross compatible equals able to cross-pollinate and produce nuts) from collected nuts. Find the best nuts, looking for separate trees' nuts to increase diversity. Leave the nuts in their inner shells and plant them in seedbeds. If planting named-variety seedlings, there must be two or more cultivars to enable crosspollination. Give the trees shade by planting them in a partially shaded area, with plenty of space between trees for the roots to spread out. Sufficient moisture should also be available.

The shagbark hickory tree is tolerant of heat into zone 8 of the deep South, and is hardy further north than black walnuts (into zone 4). Its range goes as far north in North America as that of the Carpathian walnut, and the hickory fares well in cool climates. (Local nuts or seedlings, coming from trees adapted to the local area, thrive best in local conditions. Therefore, they are the best to plant in any given location where these hickory trees are part of the native eco-system.) To obtain hickory nuts, however, one must still "go nutting" for several years after planting the trees, because they do not bear nuts for at least five years, and trying to estimate how many years will pass before trees of a particular type go into full nut-bearing potential is a tough nut to crack indeed.


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Author:Goss, Jeffery, Jr.
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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