How to Identify Hickory Trees: 11 Kinds and 3 Identifying Traits

If you enjoy a nice BBQ with family and friends in your backyard, you're probably familiar with the Hickory wood, a favorite among BBQ enthusiasts. Meat that has been cooked in a barbecue pit burning with Hickory logs will have a sweet and smoky flavor, almost like bacon. You can even pair plant-based meat alternatives with Hickory sauce for that extra flavor.

This article will make it easier for you to identify Hickory trees and share some basic facts about their value and origin.

What is a Hickory Tree?

The Hickory tree can be classified into 18 species and differentiated through its bark, leaves, and nuts. Hickory species range from 16-100 feet (4.8-30.5 meters) in height. These trees can be found mostly in North America and some parts of Asia.

Here are some interesting facts about Hickory trees:

  • All kinds of Hickory trees are a popular choice for landscapes not only because of their durable wood but also because of the nuts they produce. You can plant Hickory trees to provide good shade on your property and to mark up the value of your land.
  • While all species of Hickories can produce edible nuts, you might not always find their taste enjoyable. The Pignut, for example, has small bitter-tasting nuts that are more suited for animals, especially pigs (hence the moniker).
  • Hickory trees are also valued for their wide canopy and tall height. The average Hickory can reach 100 feet. However, some species like the Scrub Hickory only grow to a modest height of 16 feet in urban landscapes.
  • You will find that the bark of Hickory trees is often gray in color, ranging from pale to dark gray. You may also notice that the bark will peel off as the tree matures. The texture can be smooth, rigid, or fissured.

Where Can You Find Hickory Trees?

Fourteen species of Hickory trees are from the North American continent, two of which are endemic to Mexico, and four can be found in Canada. Another five to six species are scattered across Asia, specifically Indochina, China, and India.

The interesting thing about Hickory trees is that they are resilient in various climates, and they especially thrive in humid and moist areas. With their impressive heights, you will often find Hickory trees in wide landscapes, in between other large trees such as Oak, Maple, and Pine trees.

Though it's more common for them to grow in the wild, don't be surprised to find Hickory trees in urban spaces like parks and roadsides.

3 Traits to Easily Identify Hickory trees

While there are many different types of Hickory trees, some varieties have similar characteristics which can help you distinguish Hickories from other trees. The determining characteristics of a Hickory tree are 1) its leaves, 2) its bark, and 3) its nuts.

1. Leaves


Hickory tree leaves are oval-shaped, with serrated edges and a pointed tip. They grow long and narrow in an alternating arrangement.

The foliage is composed of dense leaflets, with one terminal blade. Each pinnate leaf is composed of an odd number of leaflets, and these grow up to 6-24 inches (15-70 cm) long.

2. Bark


What's distinctive about Hickory trees is their gray-colored bark which grows darker and darker as they grow older. The texture of the bark is ridged and furrowed. As they reach maturity, the Hickory tree's bark pulls away easily. When they peel off, you can see shallow or deep inner ridges.

You can harvest the bark of some species like the Shagbark to produce a sweet syrup.

3. Nuts


The Hickory tree nuts are enclosed in hard shells that will split into two halves if you decide to plant them as seeds. The shell is thick and bony in almost all species, except the Pecan, which has a thin shell.

Hickory nuts start as green spheres that slowly turn into a brown color. They are about the size of a golf ball and oval in shape like an egg. Each golf ball-sized shell contains one kernel.

Here are some facts about the culinary value of Hickory nuts:

  • The nuts contain an estimated 193 calories per kernel and are considered the most calorie-dense nut in the wild. You can crush and mash these edible nuts to make Hickory jam, perfect as a filling for pastries.
  • Among Hickory trees, the most popular nuts are produced by the Shellbark, Shagbark, Pecan, and Mockernut.
  • Pecan nuts have medicinal properties in reducing the risk of gallstones and lowering cholesterol. You can also eat these tasty and chewy Pecan nuts to prevent the degeneration of your muscles.
  • Shagbark nuts are also pretty popular in many cuisines worldwide. Considered to be one of the tastiest nuts available, Shagbark nuts will be sweet and buttery even when you eat them raw.

11 Types of Hickory trees

There are only 18 recognized species of the Hickory tree. The 11 most notable species are Black Hickory, Bitternut Hickory, Mockernut, Nutmeg Hickory, Pignut Hickory, Pecan Tree, Red Hickory, Sand Hickory, Scrub Hickory, Shagbark, and Shellbark.

Here are some short descriptions to help you identify them:

1. Black Hickory (Carya texana)


You can easily identify a Black Hickory by its modest height. Unlike its cousins, the Black Hickory is a small tree that can grow only 25-50 feet (8-15 meters) tall in urban areas. However, when allowed to grow in ideal environments, this species can grow up to 100 feet (31 meters). Take note of the dark gray bark with diamond-patterned ridges.

The leaves of the Black Hickory are bright green, oval-shaped, and are only slightly serrated. Remember to pick the nuts quickly before wild critters, and small animals nearby can get to them.

2. Bitternut (Carya cordiformis)


Visually, you can distinguish the Bitternut by its significant stature. It stands tall at 115 feet (35 meters). The Bitternut's bark is light gray in color and is smooth to the touch when it is young, but it grows darker as the tree matures.

As the tree ages, you can expect to see deep fissures and dark brown ridges on the bark. Similar to the Black Hickory tree, the fissures in this one also have an interesting diamond pattern.

The Bitternut Hickory tree is named so because it produces nuts that are bitter in taste, so you might want to steer clear of them.

3. Mockernut (Carya tomentosa)


The Mockernut Hickory tree is sometimes called the "White Hickory" because the wood is noticeably light in color. This tree is endemic to the eastern part of the United States. It stands at a modest 60-80 feet (18-24 meters) tall, with a round-shaped crown.

It's also called the Mockernut as a reference to the "would-be nut eater," which means that you would have to struggle a lot before successfully opening the hard nutshell, only to find an underwhelming nut inside. In fact, among all of the Hickory tree species, the Mockernut produces the hardest nuts.

Generally, the bark of the Mockernut doesn't peel as much as other Hickories do. Another telltale sign that you're looking at a Mockernut tree is by the smell of its leaves. The crushed leaves of a Mockernut should smell spicy, similar to that of an orange rind. Its leaf stalk also has dense hairs.

4. Nutmeg Hickory (Carya myristiciformis)


The Nutmeg tree is one of the rarest species of Hickory trees. Its populations are scattered along the Southern United States and in the Northern part of Mexico. Because it likes moisture, you will have to look in river bottomlands with calcium-rich soil to find the Nutmeg.

If you encounter a Nutmeg tree, you can easily identify it by its impressive height reaching 80-100 feet (24-31 meters). Although this tree doesn't have a wide canopy, the Nutmeg produces a buttery and tasty nut famous in many cultures.

Like the other Hickory species, the Nutmeg has a gray, peeling bark. Its leaves have pointed serrated edges. They show a brilliant bright green color and a shiny underside.

5. Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra)


Also known as the "Smoothbark Hickory," the Pignut Hickory is a species that can grow up to 60-80 feet (18-24 meters) tall. It owes its name to the fact that pigs love the nuts of the Pignut Hickory, while humans may find them bitter.

You can usually find the Pignut Hickory in the Eastern United States and Canada. The nuts usually ripen in September and October. They have a sweet maple smell and are integral to the diet of the critters around the area.

Unlike the other types of Hickory tree, the Pignut's bark is dark gray and does not peel away from the trunk. Its bark, however, can develop deep grooves and scales as the tree grows older.

6. Pecan Tree (Carya illinoinensis)


You may come across a Pecan Tree in the Southern United States or Northern Mexico. As a large tree growing between 60-130 feet (18-40 meters), the Pecan Tree provides ample shade and great aesthetic value to any landscape. Its dense canopy spreads up to 75 feet (23 meters).

The leaves of the Pecan are pointy at the edges. The Pecan's bark is not gray like the usual Hickory but is reddish-brown and, like the Pignut, does not peel. The bark can be seen to have deep fissures and flattened scales.

The Pecan tree also produces edible nuts. The nuts are dark brown inside tan-colored shells. They can be quite sweet and tasty, so it's not a surprise that they are a favorite among nut enthusiasts. With a buttery taste and a waxy, chewy texture, the Pecan nut is used in making praline candies and other baked goods.

7. Red Hickory (Carya ovalis)


The Red Hickory tree is common in the Eastern United States and Canada, particularly in the sloped woodlands of Ontario, New Hampshire, Florida, Texas, and Nebraska. It stands tall at 100 feet (31 meters). Interestingly, the Red Hickory is also known as the "Sweet Pignut Hickory" because of its striking similarities to the Pignut Hickory tree.

You can identify a Red Hickory tree by its attractive bark, which is ashen gray in color and has flat ridges. Thin and closely-spaced fissures separate the bark. Also, look out for the smooth and glossy leaves if you're looking for a Red Hickory tree.

The Red Hickory has small edible nuts described as sweet but bitter in some instances. Allow the nuts to ripen for some time before eating them.

8. Sand Hickory (Carya pallida)


The Sand Hickory is typically slow to mature, and it can grow to a modest height of 80 feet (24 meters). You can find the Sand Hickory in sandy or rocky soil in the Southeastern United States. The Sand Hickory can also produce edible nuts consumed by animals.

The bark of the Sand Hickory is smooth, light gray, and somewhat ridged with fissures. Its leaves are glossy and smooth and can typically grow up to 5 leaflets with pointed edges.

9. Scrub Hickory (Carya floridana)


The Scrub Hickory tree is commonly found in the Southeastern United States and is endemic in Florida. The Scrub species is smaller than its cousins, growing only up to 16 feet (5 meters). In the wild, you will find this tree reaching a massive 80 feet (24.4 meters). It is typical for the bark to peel off and have deep ridges and long fissures.

Relative to the tree's height, the leaves of the Scrub Hickory can be quite lengthy as well, growing up to one foot. The foliage will put on a beautiful green display in the summer and spring, then turn a nice pale yellow in autumn. You can eat the nuts of the Scrub Hickory.

10. Shagbark (Carya ovata)


The Shagbark Hickory tree can be found in Eastern and Midwestern United States and Southeast Canada. You can identify this Hickory tree through its disheveled look and tall stature. This tree stands at almost 120 feet (37 meters) tall.

The rugged look of the Hickory tree is attributed to its gray bark that peels excessively. Its oval-shaped leaves grow up to 14 inches (35.6 centimeters) with 5 to 7 leaflets each.

You can enjoy the buttery nuts of the Shagbark, or you can use the bark to prepare a sweet edible syrup. More importantly, the durable wood can be used to construct many things from paddles, golf clubs, drumsticks, baseball bats, cabinets, and furniture. Many lodges and cabins are made from Shagbark.

11. Shellbark (Carya Iaciniosa)


The Shellbark Hickory tree is native to the United States. You can eat the nuts of the Shellbark tree. In fact, this tree is also called the "Kingnut Hickory tree" because of the large nuts it produces. Each nut can be as long as 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) and as wide as 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters).

You will find that the Shellbark Hickory tree tends to grow slowly, but it will grow quite tall when it reaches maturity. This tree can reach a height of 120 feet (37 meters). The trunk is also distinctly slender.

Other identifying traits of the Shellbark are its dark gray, smooth, long, and curled bark; its narrow grooves in between the plates; and its foliage consisting of 9 leaflets with very thick twigs. In the fall, the leaves will turn a beautiful shade of golden brown, and the oddly-shaped flowers will start to appear.

Conclusion

The Hickory tree, although shaggy and rugged-looking, remains to be one of the most popular trees to date. Humans value the Hickory tree for its sturdy timber and impressively wide canopy. The delicious nuts of the Hickory tree are also used to make baked goods worldwide.

Where they are abundant in the Southern United States, Hickories have become the go-to wood when smoking cured meats. The Cherokee Indians once used the bark of the Hickory tree to dye their clothing. Even the ash from burnt Hickory wood can be used as lye to make soap.

In short, nothing from the Hickory tree goes to waste. Next time you think of grilling beef, chicken, pork, or lamb in a barbecue, grab those Hickory logs and throw them into the fire pit for that extra smoky, sweet flavor.

Posted by Erica Cortez

I have a degree in creative writing, and when I'm not writing, studying, or taking care of my dogs, I'm helping my mother tend to her plants in the garden.