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Flora Fact: Tough Nut to Crack

Humans and wildlife share the hard-shelled treats from this shade tree.

By Dyanne Fry Cortez

Do you dream of winter hiking in the woods, snacking on wild hickory nuts? You’ll need to carry a hammer to crack them, a sturdy nutcracker to pry shells apart and a nut pick to tease out the edible parts. Julia Sulsar remembers using all those tools as a child when her family gathered nuts from the huge trees in her grandparents’ backyard.

“Usually my brother and my dad used the hammer; that was a ‘boy’ thing. I got to pick the meat out of the shell; that was a ‘girl’ thing,” Sulsar says. “I remember my fingers being stained and the labor involved, but it was worth it.”

Her grandparents lived in Hot Springs, Arkansas, but hickories grow in Texas, too. Our state tree, the pecan (Carya illinoinensis), is a species of hickory. Several of its wilder cousins are found in eastern parts of the state. Some produce delicious nuts — tastier than pecans, by some accounts. Others bear fruit so bitter, even squirrels avoid it.

The family resemblance isn’t hard to see. Hickories are large, slow-growing trees with long taproots. They all have compound leaves with an odd number of leaflets. Trees flower in spring, shortly after leaves start to bud out. Male flowers are in long, green catkins, three to a cluster, emerging from side buds. Green female flowers appear in small groups at the branch tips; nuts develop inside seamed husks that split open in fall.

Is it worth the effort? That depends on the species.

hickory

The best nuts for eating come from the shagbark hickory (C. ovata), found in the Pineywoods. Nuts grow up to 2 inches in diameter. The husks are thick, but the shells are comparatively thin (as hickories go); the pale kernels are quite tasty. The gray bark of this tree splits into plates that warp outward at the edges, giving the trunk its namesake shaggy appearance.

Nuts of the mockernut hickory (C. tomentosa) also taste good, but they’re smaller and harder to crack open. The leaves of this tree have a spicy smell when crushed, and their undersides are covered with fine fuzz.

Black hickory (C. texana) is probably the most common species in Texas, after the pecan. It prefers drier soil and ventures as far west as Fredericksburg. Leaves typically have seven leaflets. The spherical nuts are edible, but have very thick shells.

Water hickory (C. aquatica), also known as bitter pecan, is easily mistaken for our state tree. Its flattish, four-angled nuts are not at all palatable, except to migrating wood ducks and mallards, which seem to enjoy them. Often found in Southeast Texas, this species can tolerate waterlogged soils.

Even when their nuts don’t taste good to humans, these fine shade trees are nice to have around. The nuts provide high-protein, high-energy snacks for a variety of wild animals, which have their own ways of getting past the shells. Hickory wood is fine-grained and strong with good shock-absorbing properties. It’s a favorite material for tool handles, baseball bats and drumsticks. Some cooks would say the world’s best barbecue is smoked over a hickory fire. 

Common Names: Hickories

Scientific Name: Carya spp.

Size: Varies by species, typically grow over 100 feet

Did You Know? The word hickory is derived from a drink Native Americans made from the nuts of the tree called “powcohiccora”

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