Ask A Master Gardener – Hickory Trees; A Wisconsin Native

Nut trees are a great investment; they provide shade, habitat and food for wildlife, beauty for the landscape, and the added benefit of food for humans. Some trees, such as walnut trees, have the drawback of producing juglone, a chemical in the roots, leaves, and twigs that makes it difficult to grow other plants in the surrounding area.  Although the shagbark hickory tree (Carya ovata) does produce juglone, it does so in minimal concentrations and is an excellent choice for homeowners.

Shagbark hickory trees are in investment in the future. They are medium to large deciduous trees that grow slowly until they reach 60—80 feet tall and 2 feet in diameter.  Under optimum conditions, they can be well over 100 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter.  However, they do not produce nuts until they are at least 20 years old and not with a significant crop until they are about 40 years old, with optimum nut production occurring between 60 and 200 years.  This native tree does well in Wisconsin’s humid summers and will tolerate winter temperatures down to -40 °F.

One distinct feature of the shagbark hickory tree is the unkept, shaggy-looking, smoky-grey bark. The bark is loose fitting and occasionally small creatures like the Indiana bat will nest beneath openings. Long strips of the bark drop to the ground making room for the next layer. The compound leaves are shiny and large, about a foot long. Between the bark, the leaves, and the oblong crown, shagbark hickories are easy to spot and make a lovely landscape tree.

Native Americans knew well the importance of shagbark hickory trees and used all parts of the tree. The nuts were pounded and boiled to produce “milk” that was fed to babies and fragile adults who needed extra nourishment. The tough, but elastic wood resists impact and stress.  It was used for tool handles, wagon wheels, barrel staves, and ladder rungs.  Today it continues to be used for furniture, flooring, tool handles, dowels, and sporting goods.

Hickory firewood produces a long, bright burn, with maximum heat and minimum ash. The University of Illinois reports that a cord of dried hickory firewood will give off over 28 million BTUs of heat, significantly “hotter” than maple or walnut. It is dense, weighing in at 4327 pounds per cord, doesn’t spark often and is moderately easy to start burning. Wood chips are consistently used for smoking meats, fish and game birds.  Backyard grill masters appreciate the flavor hickory barbeque chips impart to their food.

The sweet nuts are a real treat for human consumption and are well worth the considerable effort it takes to shell them. They take patience and experience to get out of the shell without shattering and are not readily available commercially because of the labor required to obtain them.  But, they are one of the best tasting nuts.  Even First Lady Sarah Polk recognized this and was well known for her Hickory Nut Cake.

Tough Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. President, earned the nickname “Old Hickory” for his boldness during the War of 1812. Diversify your landscape tree selection and try something presidential that will withstand tough times and last generations.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener

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