In the Garden: A Tree of Many Uses

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Hickory leaf. Photo: Charles Kidder.

If your memory goes back to 1974 you might recall Euell Gibbons in a TV commercial extolling the taste of Post Grape-Nuts, saying the flavor reminded him of “wild hickory nuts.” I’m not sure that I’ve ever tasted a wild hickory nut, but if you’re inclined to sample one, proceed with caution. Not all are so tasty.

Between 17 and 19 species of hickory (the genus Carya, the word from the Ancient Greek for “nut”) exist in North America and East Asia, with about 12 native to the United States. These somewhat vague numbers owe to differing opinions on whether some populations are true species, or merely varieties. Even professional botanists confess to difficulty in distinguishing between recognized species, so don’t feel bad if you find yourself puzzling over a particular tree. All hickories have pinnately compound leaves, i.e. several leaflets arranged along a central rachis, with a terminal leaflet at the end. Depending on the species, the number of leaflets ranges from 3 to 21, their shape either narrow and elongate, or broadly ovate.

With nine species found growing in Virginia, the shagbark hickory (C. ovata) is arguably the most recognizable, with large strips of bark peeling off mature trees. Most common in the mountains, it also occurs less frequently in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain. With its sweet-tasting nuts, Euell Gibbons would have been pleased. 

Among the other hickories commonly found across most of the Commonwealth, Carya cordiformis, the bitternut hickory definitely does not invite tasting, whereas the sweet pignut (C. ovalis) would appear to be palatable. Sweet pignut has slightly shaggy bark, while its cousin the pignut (C. glabra) does not. No word on the tastiness of the latter. The widespread mockernut hickory (C. tomentosa) has stout, wooly stems and reportedly edible nuts, but the large thick shells hide only a small kernel. Hence, the tree “mocks” you for your efforts.

Regarding moisture requirements, hickories are adaptable trees. Depending on the species, they’re found growing from very dry hilltops to seasonally flooded bottomlands, although some species do show a preference for more basic soils than we have in the Virginia Piedmont.

Various parts of the hickory tree are quite valuable to a wide variety of creatures, including Homo sapiens. Hickories’ nuts are an important food source for wildlife and the leaves are fed on by various moths. I’ve read of hickory bark syrup, a smoky-sweet alternative to maple syrup and hope to sample some. And where would lovers of cured meats and barbecue be without that distinctive flavor from a hickory fire?

Hickory wood is renowned for being hard, stiff, dense and shock resistant. The combination of all these qualities has led to the wood being used for tool handles, drumsticks and golf clubs. Although once used for baseball bats, its greater weight proved detrimental, and it was replaced by ash. And the wood also provided a nickname for a tough president, Andrew Jackson.

Perhaps the best-known species of hickory usually goes by another name, the pecan (Carya illinoinensis).  (And how do you pronounce “pecan”?  Reportedly there’s little agreement on this, even within specific geographic regions.) Grown for its thin-shelled and tasty nuts, the pecan is native to the Mississippi drainage as far north as Illinois. They can be grown in Virginia, but being susceptible to many pests, they present something of a challenge. You have to plant two varieties to achieve fertilization, and need to carefully select among those that will flower at the same time as well.

Given that hickories are sturdy trees that, useful to humans and wildlife, what’s their role in ornamental horticulture? To be perfectly frank, not that much. Some will produce a lovely golden-yellow fall color, and there’s that sometimes-shaggy bark. Other than that, they pretty much disappear into the woodwork. If you want to walk unimpeded across your lawn the large nuts could be something of a nuisance. Perhaps the major impediment to hickory horticulture: their substantial taproot. Three feet of root is not going to be happy in a 3-gallon pot at the nursery. If you’re really anxious to have a hickory in your yard, collect some nuts in the woods, and plant them a couple of inches deep at home. I once lived near an abandoned pecan orchard, and squirrels were forever ensuring that new trees were popping up all over my yard.

One more use for hickory wood. Do you remember the old song School Days? “Reading and ’riting and ’rithmetic, taught to the tune of the hick’ry stick.” Not that I’m countenancing corporal punishment in schools, of course.

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If you’ve got some time to kill, look for the Euell Gibbons Grape-Nuts ad on YouTube.  Then move on to another Grape-Nuts ad: “Oh, no, Mrs. Burke. I thought you were Dale!”  

Ah, YouTube. Pretty soon you’ll be wondering where the last six hours had gone. 

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