What is a Shagbark Hickory?

Here's everything you need to know about the shagbark hickory - its structure, reproduction, uses, and growing conditions. We've also included some interesting FAQs about this large, deciduous tree.

Isn’t it just so delightful that we live in a world that grows so many kinds of nut trees? The shagbark hickory (sometimes confused with the black walnut) is a very large tree that grows naturally in eastern North America.

Though not a superbly common plant, they are very important to the ecosystem of eastern forests. A lovely treat to many an animal and insect, the shagbark also produces sweet and delicious nuts that are likened to pecans.

Read on to keep learning about Carya ovata, or head on over to 101 Types of Trees to continue learning about all the wondrous tree types that the world has to offer!

Related: Pignut Hickory Tree | Bitternut Hickory Tree | Types of Hickory Wood

Carya Ovata

The shagbark hickory is probably the most recognizable of all the hickory trees, for the way in which mature trees shed their bark in large, scaly pieces. This large deciduous tree can grow to be over 350 years old (placing it in the old-growth category) and is part of the walnut family of trees.

It’s the scientific name, Carya ovata, which translates literally to “oval nut”, indicative of its very sweet-tasting, choice edible nut. The word “hickory” is derived from the Algonquin word pawcohiccora which is in reference to nut milk made from hickory tree nuts. Other names that the shagbark hickory goes by are; Carolina hickory, Scalybark hickory, Upland hickory, and Shellbark hickory.

What do Shagbark Hickory Trees Look Like?

Root System

The root system of all species of hickory trees is woody taproots. This is a characteristic that they share with carrots, funnily enough. A wood taproot system is developed in trees that are moisture-loving. Fewer roots grow deep into the soil to reach the locked moisture, rather than more roots that grow in shallow soil and laterally.

Bark

Closeup of a trunk of a shagbark hickory.

The shagbark hickory is most easily recognized by the look of its bark. Though on young trees, shagbark bark is smooth and a lovely gray-green color, old trees start to develop much more roughly textured bark that eventually peels of in large, scaly pieces.

Dimensions

The trunk of a shagbark tree is very straight and upright, and the tree will grow to be an average of 30 meters in height. The tallest shagbark hickory on record was a baffling 46 meters tall! The branches of this tree start to develop near the middle of the trunk into a crown that develops into a robust ovular shape and makes it a pretty decent shade tree.

Foliage

Shagbark hickory leaves

At the end of the shagbark branches will be found long twigs that hold a long, pinnately shaped compound leaf with usually 5 leaflets. The first 3 terminal leaves are always bigger than the basal pair. A shagbark leaf is a bright green color, which is usually paler on the underside that is also covered in downy hairs.

To learn about the characteristics of shagbark hickory flowers, keep reading!

How do Shagbark Hickory Trees Reproduce?

Flowers

Closeup of shagbark hickory flowers.

Shagbark hickories possess monoecious flowers, meaning that each sex of the flower is borne on the same branch. Male flowers grow as pendulous catkins (flowers with indistinct or no petals) that grow as long-stalked staminate flowers at the axil of the previous seasons’ leaves. The male flower is a yellow-green color.

Female flowers are very tiny and grow in small clusters at the tip of the current year’s branchlets. They are stout and ovular in shape. They are a yellowish-green color and are covered in scales and downy hairs.

Each sex of the flower develops at different times (though both in mid-spring), preventing the ability to self-pollinate. In order to reach fertilization, the tree will need help from a pollinator, or it can be achieved through wind pollination as well. The wind carries the pollen from the male flowers that will then blow into the female flowers.

Fruit

Fruits of the shagbark hickory.

Once successful pollination has been achieved, the tree will develop a drupe fruit usually in late autumn. It develops as a long edible nut that is ovular in shape. The meat kernel is covered by a hard, bone-like shell, and the shell is covered by a bright green husk.

The husk is divided into 4 sections, and as it matures it darkens into a brown color. The husk splits off at full maturity (which is usually in either September or October) where then it can be accessed by forest-dwelling creatures.

Sexual Maturity

Shagbark hickory trees aren’t the first option as an orchard tree because they tend to be unreliable fruit bearers. They reach sexual maturity after 10 years, though they don’t produce big crops until about 40 years of age. Even then, their crop production is erratic at best until the age of 100.

These trees usually produce decent nut crops for about every 3-5 years, but even that is an unreliable estimation. In the years in between, the tree produces either no or a very minimal nut crop.

What Are Some Other Types of Hickory Trees?

Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis)

Bitternut hickory with golden yellow autumn-foliage.

This variety of hickory trees is one of the largest of the hickories, but also one of the shortest-lived. They grow to a minimum of 35 meters tall with an impressively sized canopy. They are one of the hickory species that grows a terribly bitter and inedible nut.

Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra)

Pignut hickory in autumn colors.

This variety of hickory is part of the oak-hickory forest of the eastern United States and Canada. Sometimes called a sweet pignut, coast pignut hickory, or smoothbark hickory, it produces a pear-shaped nut that has a delectable maple smell, and is popular among humans and animals alike.

Shellbark Hickory (Carya laciniosa)

This variety of hickory is the largest of all the hickories, usually exceeding 40 meters in height! It is sometimes called a bigleaf shellbark, kingnut, or big bottom, they produce very delicious and sweet edible nuts.

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)

Mockernut hickory during fall.

This variety of hickory is the most abundant of all hickories, and is incredibly long-lived — sometimes exceeding 500 years of age! They are most distinguishable by the underside of their leaves, which are covered with very soft, downy hairs. The hickory nut they produce has a very small meaty kernel that is edible.

Red Hickory (Carya ovalis)

This variety of hickory is the most uncommon of all of its relatives. They are sometimes referred to as sweet pignut hickory, and the fruit they produce contains a small kernel of nutmeat that ranges from being very bitter, to semi-sweet.

Sand Hickory (Carya pallida)

This variety of hickory grows in different kinds of habitats, which are usually in more rocky and sandy landscapes. They are native to the southeastern United States, they are the smallest of all the hickory trees and produce a semi-tasty edible nut.

Where do Shagbark Hickory Trees Grow?

These interesting trees grow naturally in nearly all eastern states in the United States, and in most southeastern provinces in Canada. However, they are absent from the lower Mississippi delta, and the southeastern Gulf coastal plains.

They grow in isolated communities in Canada, only going as far north as the Lavant Township in northern Quebec. They will grow as far south as certain eastern mountain regions in Mexico as well.

Shagbark hickories do not grow in largely isolated stands of their own but can be found in scattered groupings within forests that contain maples, oaks, and pines.

What are the Growing Conditions of Shagbark Hickory Trees?

Shagbark hickory in a field.

Climate

The shagbark hickory tree prefers to grow in climates that have high humidity, though they are able to tolerate cold and dry winters. This species of hickory can survive in the greatest variety of temperature differences.

Soil

Though they are able to live in almost any temperature, the shagbark hickory must exist in soil that is not only very moist but very well-drained, and that is high in nutrients as well. They are tolerable of many pH levels as well and are known to thrive in moist soils that are highly alkaline or highly acidic.

Water

Hickories are water-loving trees. They won’t grow in regions that experience regular draught, and will often grow next to bodies of water. They have taproot systems that enable them to reach the water contained deep in the soil.

Sunlight

Sun shining through the golden yellow leaves of shagbark hickory.

Hickories grow to be so tall because they are sun-loving trees. They are easily able to beat out the forest canopy competition thanks to their height. They prefer full sun but won’t perish in a little bit of shade. This qualifies them as being a semi-shade tolerant tree.

What Pests Affect the Shagbark Hickory Tree?

The shagbark hickory is by no means close to being endangered, but it does have to deal with the same pests that other hickory trees have to deal with.

  1. Though this isn’t necessarily a pest, hickory trees are very susceptible to fire damage. Their wood is very dense and dry, and they would not survive a forest fire. This is why they don’t grow in arid desert regions.
  2. Hickory trees are also quite susceptible to cankers, which are like open tree wounds caused by a type of wood rooting fungus. This will not kill them, but it does make them more vulnerable to other infections.
  3. The shagbark hickory also deals with aphid infestations (though they are not many plants that are able to avoid aphids) and the hickory bark beetle as well. Neither of these pests are able to kill the tree.
  4. There are some groves of shagbark hickories that have been found to have the pecan weevil pest. These weevils are little larvae that invade the nut in pecan trees. Though not particularly dangerous, they are unsightly.
  5. This tree will also experience a sickness called anthracnose, which is an infection that will show up on the foliage of hickory trees. This infection causes brown spots on the leaves that will eventually seep into the branches if not removed.

How is Shagbark Hickory Trees Used?

Human Use – Nut Production

The shagbark hickory tree is considered as being an unreliable tree for commercial uses or in orchard production. This is because the tree takes such a long time to become sexually mature and bear fruit, and because the fruit crops it eventually does produce are very sporadic.

Even when they do produce crops, so many animals love to nibble on the shagbark hickory nut that much of the crop may get snatched up before it can be harvested by humans.

Human Use – Wood

Smoker grill with coals and fire.

Shagbark hickories are very slow growing trees, meaning that they have the time to develop wood that is very hard, dense, sturdy, and durable. Because they grow so slowly, they aren’t a popular option in the lumber industry. However, the wood will sometimes be used to make hockey sticks and wooden bows. Because of its flex, it is also paired with true hickory to create certain types of tools, like ax handles and axles.

Additionally, like all other hickory woods, shagbark wood is used for meat smoking. This is because hickory wood has a high heat capacity, it burns very slowly, doesn’t produce too much flame or smoke, and the smoke that it does create is very pleasant smelling.

The bark of the tree is also used to help in the flavoring of maple-flavored syrup (this should not be mistaken for authentic maple syrup, but it is corn syrup that is flavored like maple).

Forest Ecology

Chipmunk having nuts.

The nut of the shagbark hickory is said to be as sweet and pleasant as the pecan, though much more difficult to crack open. Luckily for certain forest-dwelling creatures, they possess the tools to be able to crack open these nuts.

There are many species of animal that rely on the nuts of hickory trees, and the following animals love to snack on the shagbark nut:

  • red & gray squirrels
  • wild turkeys
  • mallards
  • wood ducks
  • chipmunks
  • mice
  • rabbits
  • red & gray foxes
  • bobwhites
  • black bears

FAQs

How do you harvest shagbark hickory nuts? How do you crack shagbark hickory nuts?

It is said that the easiest way to harvest shagbark hickory nuts is to let nature take its course. Usually, harvesters will wait until September or October until the nut fully matures, where the protective husk will eventually peel off, and then the nut will fall to the ground.

Once the husk has peeled off, there is still a bone-like shell that must be cracked. A regular nut-cracker can achieve this. The meat inside of the shagbark nut is divided into separate kernels, that is very sweet and oily.

Because the nut inside isn’t one cohesive piece of meat, the shagbark nut is not usually sold commercially, due to the difficulty.

Are shagbark hickory trees valuable?

The shagbark hickory tree is not considered as especially commercially valuable for several reasons. Number one is that they are incredibly difficult to transplant due to their very deep taproot system.

Number two is that the shagbark hickory is very slow-growing. It doesn’t reach full height until about 100 years old, and it doesn’t reach sexual maturity until about 40 years old.

And finally, the shagbark tree is quite a messy dropper. Not only do they drop thousands of nut husks throughout their lifetime (like all other hickory trees), it also has its characteristic “shaggy bark” that peels off in large scaly pieces.

Do shagbark hickory trees produce nuts every year?

Shagbark hickory trees are known for being unreliable nut producers. They will produce a decent to good nut crop every 3-5 years (hopefully), but in the in-between years, they will produce little to no nuts.

That being said, it is not guaranteed that they will produce nuts even every 5 years.

How fast do shagbark hickory trees grow?

The shagbark, like all other types of hickory trees, are rather slow-growing trees. It is unlikely that they will grow more than 1 meter each year.

How long do shagbark hickory trees live?

Hickory trees are rather long-lived trees, and all of them are part of the old-growth category. Depending on the species, they will usually live to be between 200-500 years. The shagbark hickory will usually live to be around 350 years old.

How tall do shagbark hickory trees get?

Hickory trees are usually very large trees, with the shagbark being one of the largest varieties. They will usually grow to be between 30-35 meters in height, though the tallest shagbark on record grew to be 46 meters tall.

How do you identify a shagbark hickory tree?

Rather indicative of its name, the shagbark hickory tree is most easily identified through its characteristically shaggy bark. Old trees will have roughly textured light gray bark that peels off in large, scaly pieces.

Another way to identify the shagbark hickory, if the tree was young and without its shaggy bark, this tree produces nuts that are very ovular in shape and possess a light green husk.

What family of trees is the shagbark hickory part of?

Hickory trees are part of the walnut family and the genus Carya.

What animals eat shagbark hickory nuts?

Shagbark hickory nuts are very delicious and high in sugar and nutrients. This makes them a very important part of the diet of many forest-dwelling creatures. These nuts are eaten by rabbits, squirrels, foxes, bears, and many kinds of birds as well.

Are shagbark trees messy?

Hickory trees are considered as being a nuisance to landscapers and homeowners alike because they shed much of their foliage, bark, and fruit.

Hickories are deciduous trees, meaning that they shed their leaves every fall like the winter approaches. In the late summer, they will shed the husks of their nuts, then the nuts will fall to the ground as well.

And if all of that mess wasn’t enough, shagbark hickories will also shed their scaly bark in large pieces. For these reasons, the shagbark is not a common ornamental or street tree.

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