Named for its bitter nuts that are high in tannins, bitternut hickory has another common name--swamp hickory—that indicates its preference for moist soils. At 70’, it’s one of the largest hickories, and its slender trunk and broad crown stand tall in strong winds. Unlike other hickories, its canopy casts dappled shade, allowing ornamentals and grass to thrive underneath. It bears attractive catkins and nuts, and in fall the foliage is a stunning yellow. In winter, mustard-colored buds set it apart from other hickories.
Often found on wet bottomlands, along streams and rivers and in swamps and low woods, but will grow on drier sites and soils low in nutrients. In the landscape, it’s best suited for larger areas, woodland gardens, and naturalized sites.
Grows 50-70’ tall and 40-50’ wide.
Needs at least 4 hours of sun.
Prefers acidic, moist, well-drained soils but is fairly tolerant of clay and gravelly sites. Tolerates occasional flooding.
Flowers appear April–May. Male and female flowers occur as catkins on the same tree. Greenish-yellow, 3-4” male catkins grow in threes; short, spiky female catkins occur at tips of twigs.
Globe-shaped, four-part nuts covered by a thin, yellow-green husk mature in September and October.
Compound leaves are 6–12” long with 7–9 elliptical, dark-green leaflets that turn yellow in fall.
Trunk is long and straight. Young bark is smooth and light gray with shallow fissures, becoming darker and increasingly furrowed with age.
Twigs bear bright yellow buds in winter.
A host plant for 231 lepidoptera, including the fantastical hickory horned devil caterpillar that becomes the regal moth, plus epione, oldwife, darling, youthful and penitent underwing moths (all pictured here in order of text). The trunk provides cavity nesting for birds and mammals, and the nuts are an important source of nutrition for numerous species of wildlife.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
The nuts may best be left to wildlife due to their high tannin content and bitter flavor. Native Americans mixed the nut oil with food as a flavoring agent and mashed the nuts to use in bread and other foods. The wood can be used to smoke meat.
Native Americans used the wood for making bows. Because bitternut hickory wood is shockproof and durable, it’s used for tool handles, furniture, paneling, dowels, and ladders. Like other hickories, the wood is used for smoking meat.
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