Never was a tree so aptly named—long strips of curling, peeling bark make this tree look undeniably shaggy. Shagbark is a tough tree (from which Andrew Jackson earned his nickname, “Old Hickory”) that adapts to a broad array of soil types and lives for hundreds of years. Also known as scaly bark hickory and Carolina hickory, shagbark is distinguished from others in its species by smaller and more-bitter fruit with a thinner, four-ridged husk. The husks invite foraging by splitting open from September to November; however, once the hard inner shell has been cracked, the meats need to be pried out. The nuts and catkins attract many pollinators, birds and mammals, and Indiana bats make homes within the loosely plated crevices of the bark.
Shagbarks are found in mixed forests in a wide range of settings, from dry uplands in the northern end of its range to moist, mineral-rich soils in its southern range. They serve as wonderful ornamental shade trees in larger landscapes. Prune when young to promote sturdier limbs and better overall form.
Grows 60-80’ tall, sometimes reaching 120’ in ideal locations.
Requires 6-8 hours of sun per day for best growth.
Adapts to dry or moist well-drained, fertile soils, including sandy, loamy, and clay soils.
In mid-spring, green male catkins hang in clusters of three. Female catkins are short and spiky with green stigmata.
Fruits are encased in thick, green, 4-seamed husks that mature to brown. The husks split open to reveal a hard, brown inner shell containing nuts.
Compound leaves have five ovate, 2-10” leaflets with pointed tips. Leaf color changes from light green to vibrant mustard yellow and warm bronze in autumn.
Smooth, gray bark splits with age and peels away in narrow vertical strips or broader plates, sometimes curling outwards at both ends of the strip.
Host plant to 231 Lepidoptera species, including the hickory tussock pictured here with its caterpillar. Birds, foxes, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, and mice consume the nuts and catkins. Different birds and mammals use the trunk and canopy as nesting sites.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Hickory nuts are rich in minerals and fatty acids that benefit the cardiovascular system. A tea made from the inner bark is said to be warming and stimulating to the digestive tract, promoting absorption, bile flow, and helping to reverse constipation.
The Algonquin named the tree “hickory” for the oily nuts they pounded and boiled to make sweet hickory milk. The nuts have a strong flavor similar to black walnuts, a flavor that is enhanced when toasted. They work well in baked goods, or sprinkled over salads or other prepared dishes. The burning wood imparts a smoky flavor to meat.
As with all hickories, the wood is highly prized for a number of uses. In particular, shagbark’s fuel value is higher than that of any other North American wood except for locust. The wood was once used to make spokes for carriage and cart wheels, and it continues to be valued for its strong, shock-resistant qualities in the production of tool handles, ladder rungs, furniture, and flooring.
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