Minnesota is home to two types of hickory trees: the bitternut hickory and the shagbark hickory.
These hardy, deciduous trees thrive in the state's varied climate and landscapes.
Here is an overview of each species and where they can be found in the North Star State.
- Minnesota has two native hickory species - the bitternut hickory and the shagbark hickory.
- Bitternut hickories are common throughout much of the state, while shagbark hickories are limited to the southeast corner.
- Bitternut hickories thrive in moist forests and bottomlands. Shagbark hickories prefer moist soil along streams and wooded hillsides.
- Both species produce edible nuts that are an important food source for wildlife. The bitter taste of bitternut hickory nuts deters animals from feeding on them.
- In addition to providing food and habitat, hickory wood is valued for making tools, furniture, and firewood.
- Hickory trees play an integral ecological role in Minnesota through their flowers that support pollinators and nuts that sustain wildlife.
- Protecting hickory habitat helps conserve food sources and resources that many animals rely on.
The Bitternut Hickory
The bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) is a common sight in many parts of Minnesota.
These large trees have a straight trunk and broad, rounded crown that provides pleasant shade.
Bitternut hickories grow to around 60-80 feet tall with a spread of 40-50 feet. They have a gray, scaly bark that develops shallow furrows with age.
The compound leaves are made up of 7-9 leaflets. Each leaflet has a finely toothed margin and is broadest above the middle.
The small greenish-yellow male and female flowers appear in spring.
By fall, they develop into round fruit with four sections containing bitter tasting nuts.
The bitter taste helps discourage animals from feeding on the nuts, allowing more of them to germinate.
Bitternut hickories thrive in moist forests and bottomlands. Their natural range covers much of the eastern and central United States.
In Minnesota, they are common southward through the Big Woods. They extend north to Mille Lacs and infrequently as far as the upper Mississippi and Red River Valley.
Bitternut hickory prefers rich, moist soil. It can grow on slopes and ridges but achieves its greatest size in river bottoms.
This adaptability allows it to flourish in various parts of Minnesota.
2. The Shagbark Hickory
While the bitternut hickory inhabits much of Minnesota, the shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) has a much smaller range limited to the southeast.
This majestic tree can live for over 300 years and provides excellent shade and fall color.
Mature shagbark hickories are easy to recognize by their gray bark that separates into large, hanging strips.
This gives the trunk a shaggy appearance, leading to the tree's common name.
These trees can reach heights over 100 feet with a spread of around 40 feet.
The compound leaves typically have 5 leaflets. Shagbark hickory produces edible nuts enclosed in a thick four-lobed husk that splits open in fall.
The sweet nuts are a favorite food of wildlife.
In Minnesota, the shagbark hickory is found entirely in the southeastern corner of the state.
Its range extends northward into Wabasha County along the Mississippi River.
Shagbark thrives in rich, moist soil often found along streams and on wooded hillsides. It does best in areas with warmer summers, which are found in southern Minnesota.
The tree cannot tolerate prolonged flooding, so well-drained soils are ideal.
Benefits to Wildlife
Both Minnesota hickories provide excellent habitat and food sources for wildlife.
Their nuts are an important source of fat and protein for everything from squirrels and chipmunks to turkeys and bears.
Hickory wood is dense, hard, and versatile. In the past, it was used to make pioneer tools like axe handles and wagon wheels.
Today, artisans and woodworkers still value hickory for use in rustic furniture. Hickory wood also makes excellent firewood and is prized for smoking meat.
While their ranges may differ, bitternut and shagbark hickories are both integral natural resources in Minnesota.
Their spring flowers support pollinators while their nuts sustain all types of wildlife in fall. The next time you see a hickory, take a moment to appreciate this invaluable tree.
Before You Go
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