The Shellbark Hickory; A Tough Nut to Crack

Hickory ice cream is delicious

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Hickory nut on the Shellbark hickory

The taxonomy for the hickory tree is a little nutty. Members of  the walnut family, Carya (hickories) represent about 25 species worldwide. Eleven are native to North America. Also a member of the walnut family, and of the same species as hickories, are the the trees which produce pecans.

The SHELLBARK Hickory (Carya laciniosa) is native to most of the eastern United States and Ontario. Like many other species, it has many alternate names including; big shellbark, bottom shellbark, kingnut, and thick shellbark.

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The compound leaves of the Shellbark hickory

Another moniker, bigleaf shagbark, may cause some confusion between the two types of hickory tree. Even though some say the flavor of the shellbark’s nut, with its difficult shell to crack, isn’t as good as that of the shagbark, a few plantations of shellbark trees have been established. The shellbark hickory can hybridize with pecans to produce a larger nut. It may crossbreed with shagbarks as well.

The wood of the shellbark, as with most hickories, is considered one of the hardest of the American native trees and is difficult to work as it tends to blunt edges. Because of the strength of the wood, it may be used to make chairs and rockers.  The lumber also has a high BTU output, making it desirable as firewood. It is also used for smoking meats, such as in this recipe for hickory smoked turkey. 

When in Portland, ME, I had the pleasure of eating a blueberry crumble with hickory ice cream at the Portland Harbor Hotel. I must admit while I was enjoying the very woody flavor I had no idea there was more than one kind of hickory tree. I include this recipe for hickory ice cream, which does call for shagbark chips, as well as one for hickory nut shortbread cookies.

Native peoples had numerous uses for the parts of the shellback tree, including the

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The shaggy bark of the shellbark hickory

innerbark for snowshoe rims and baskets and the wood for arrow shafts and blow darts. The shellbark hickory had numerous uses in traditional medicine including as an abortifacient, cold remedy, analgesic, an emetic, and a digestive system  aid. Other uses included gun stocks and tool handles. The species has also been used to produce dyes and make soap.

Due to the large and long taproot, the trees may be difficult to transplant. They are slow growing as well. The nuts are food for many small mammals as well as turkeys and deer. There are many husks on the ground near the specimen tree, but none are intact, verifying their use as squirrel food.

The champion tree, crowned in 2018, is 109′ tall and found in Virginia. Although the height of the tree may depend on environmental conditions, Carya laciniosa are said to usually be about 60′ to 80′ tall. The specimen in Fort Collin’s City Park was planted in 1991 and had a trunk diameter of 3.5″.

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The shellbark hickory

Find D198 Shellbark Hickory (Carya laciniosa) along Sheldon Drive. The best way to describe where to find it is south of the intersection with City Park Drive. The tree is east of the shelter near the lake and almost directly west of the exercise station on the east side of Sheldon Drive. The nut husks are the give away as I don’t think this tree is labeled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carya laciniosa was used extensively by the Cherokee, according to Moerman (1998)

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