Hickory trees are so common in our area that most of our woodlands are classified as the “oak-hickory” forest type. They provide humans and wildlife with important food and fiber.
There are several hickory species growing in our area, and the three most common ones are Shagbark, Mockernut, and Pignut. All have compound (multi-blade) leaves that have five to nine “leaflets”. The leaves and nut husks have a strong odor. The bark can be identified by its diamond shape pattern and hardness. The easiest hickory to identify in the woods is Shagbark, which has bark that hangs down in long shaggy plates that bend away from the trunk. In earlier times the non-shaggy species were called “tight bark” hickories. They will grow almost anywhere, but are more often found on dry slopes and ridges.
The nut of a hickory is easy to identify, being a fairly large beige colored nut encased in a husk that splits into four sections. They are an important winter food source for squirrel, turkey, and are occasionally used by deer.
The Shagbark hickory produces a large nut that it is often sought out for human consumption. The nut has an interesting flavor, but I’ve always found it tough to crack without pulverizing the nutmeat. A more popular nut produced by another member of the hickory family is the Pecan, which is native west and south of our area.
The wood of hickory is heavy, hard, and very strong. It is used for tool handles and for making charcoal. In the past it was used to make wagon wheels, furniture, barrel hoops, and for Model T wheel spokes. Back in the day, the inner bark of hickory was peeled off in long strips and used to weave seats in chairs Wood smoke from green hickory wood gives grilled meat a nice flavor. Probably the most common use for hickory in our area is for firewood. A cord of seasoned hickory wood has about the same heat content as a ton of coal. .
Symbolically, hickory is denotes strength and patience. President Andrew Jackson was nicknamed “Old Hickory” for his toughness on the battlefield. Hickories are slow growing and it may be decades before begin producing nuts. And once you have them, patience is required when you try to coax a nutmeat out of a hard hickory shell.
Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.