Hickory trees hold an important place in the forests and landscapes of North Carolina.
Several hickory species are native to the state and provide ecological, economic, and aesthetic benefits. Hickories are prized for their extremely hard, dense wood and delicious edible nuts.
North Carolina is home to five main types of native hickory trees: shagbark, bitternut, shellbark, pignut, and mockernut.
While pecan and Chinese hickory trees can also be found in North Carolina, they are non-native species introduced from other regions.
This article explores the key identifying features, habitat, uses, and benefits of both native and non-native hickory trees found in North Carolina.
Native Hickory Trees in North Carolina
North Carolina is home to several species of hickory trees native to the state.
Hickories are deciduous trees known for their hard, dense wood and delicious nuts.
There are five main hickory species native to North Carolina:
1. Shagbark Hickory
The shagbark hickory is a large deciduous tree found mainly in the Piedmont area of central North Carolina.
It can grow up to 100 feet tall with a trunk diameter of 2-3 feet. As its name implies, the shagbark hickory has bark that peels away in long, vertical strips, giving the trunk a shaggy appearance.
This peeling bark is one of the shagbark's most distinguishing features.
The leaves are compound with 5-7 leaflets. In the fall, the leaves turn golden yellow. The shagbark produces sweet, edible nuts that are prized by wildlife.
While the shagbark hickory prefers dry upland areas, it can also be found along streams and moist bottomlands.
This versatile species thrives in a variety of soil types.
The strong, shock-resistant wood is used to make tool handles, baseball bats, drumsticks and other products.
The shagbark hickory is valued both as a towering shade tree and for its delicious nuts.
2. Bitternut Hickory
The bitternut hickory is a medium-sized deciduous tree common throughout North Carolina. Mature trees reach 60-80 feet in height.
Bitternut hickory is named for its bitter-tasting nuts, which squirrels tend to avoid. It has a tall, straight trunk with spreading branches that form a broad crown.
The bark is smooth and gray when young, becoming shallowly ridged and furrowed with age.
The compound leaves contain 7-11 bright green leaflets that turn golden yellow in autumn.
Bitternut hickory grows on a variety of sites, including dry ridgetops, moist slopes, and bottomlands.
This adaptability allows the bitternut to thrive statewide in North Carolina.
3. Shellbark Hickory
The shellbark hickory is prized for its large, sweet, edible nuts. It can reach heights over 100 feet with a trunk diameter of 3-4 feet.
Shellbark hickory has a tall, straight trunk and narrow crown.
As the common name suggests, shellbark hickory has a unique bark that peels away in large, curved plates, giving the tree a shaggy appearance.
The compound leaves typically have 5 leaflets. In fall, the leaves turn golden bronze. Shellbark hickory produces the largest nuts of any native hickory - up to 2 inches long!
The sweet, rich-flavored nuts are enveloped by a thick outer husk that splits open when ripe. Wildlife and humans alike relish the nuts.
The strong, shock-resistant wood is used to make tool handles, skis, wheel spokes and more. In the landscape, shellbark hickory provides food, shade and beauty.
4. Pignut Hickory
The pignut hickory is a common, but overlooked hickory species in North Carolina. It is a medium to large tree reaching 60-80 feet tall.
Pignut hickory can be identified by its smooth, gray bark that is ridged and furrowed vertically. The leaves are compound, containing 5-7 leaflets.
Unlike other hickories, the pignut produces small, rounded nuts that are bitter in taste. The nuts are essentially inedible for both humans and wildlife.
The name "pignut" comes from the fact that pigs will eat the nuts if little else is available.
The strong, flexible wood is used commercially for products like tool handles, ladder rungs, and sporting equipment.
Pignut hickory is found on a wide variety of sites, including dry ridges, moist coves, swamp borders and sandy woodlands. Its adaptability allows it to thrive across North Carolina.
5. Mockernut Hickory
The mockernut hickory is a large deciduous tree native to North Carolina. It grows 60-80 feet tall with a straight trunk that can reach 3 feet in diameter.
Mockernut hickory is named for its fruit - nuts so hard that even squirrels have difficulty cracking them open. It has gray bark with interlacing ridges that form diamond patterns.
The compound leaves normally contain 7-9 leaflets. In autumn, the leaves turn golden bronze before dropping.
Mockernuts produce bitter-tasting nuts with very hard outer shells. While not good for humans, these nuts provide food for wildlife.
The extremely hard wood is used commercially to make tool handles, ladder rungs, baseball bats and other products requiring strength and shock resistance.
Mockernut hickory grows slowly but can live for over 300 years. It is found on ridges, slopes and upland woods throughout North Carolina.
Non-Native Hickory Trees in North Carolina
In addition to native hickory species, there are two non-native hickories that can be found in North Carolina:
The pecan is a large deciduous tree belonging to the hickory family. It is native to central and southern North America.
In the landscape trade, improved pecan cultivars have been selected for their superior nut production.
These cultivated pecan trees are planted commercially across the southern United States for nut production.
They can also be found in home gardens and urban areas of North Carolina.
Pecan trees can grow over 100 feet tall with massive trunks up to 6 feet in diameter.
They have a broad, rounded crown and furrowed gray bark. The leaves are pinnate, bearing 9-17 oblong leaflets.
Unlike other hickories, the pecan has smooth outer nut shells. The pecan nuts are considered the tastiest of all hickory nuts, with a rich, buttery flavor.
Pecan wood is used commercially to make furniture, paneling, flooring and other products.
Pecan trees provide abundant shade and ornamental value in addition to producing a nut crop.
7. Chinese Hickory
The Chinese hickory is native to eastern Asia but can be found sparingly in North Carolina. It was likely introduced as an ornamental tree.
Chinese hickory can reach 60 feet tall in cultivation but is normally smaller. The bark is tight, hard and furrowed. Leaves are pinnate with 7-13 leaflets.
Chinese hickory produces small, rounded nuts with four-segmented husks. The nuts are edible but bland. Chinese hickory is also called carya cathayensis.
It is used ornamentally for its compound leaves, attractive bark and branching structure. Chinese hickory prefers rich, moist soils.
The hard, shock-resistant wood could potentially be used to make tool handles and other products, but this species is rarely found in sufficient quantities for forestry purposes.
Chinese hickory remains a scarce novelty tree in North Carolina.
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