Hickory trees are an important part of Nebraska's ecology and history.
Two hickory species are native to Nebraska - the shagbark hickory and the shellbark hickory.
These large, long-lived trees provide food and habitat for wildlife, valuable wood, and a connection to Nebraska's indigenous peoples.
Beyond the native hickories, several non-native ones have been introduced for ornamental landscaping.
This article explores Nebraska's native and non-native hickory trees.
- Two hickory species are native to Nebraska - shagbark and shellbark hickory. They provide food and habitat for wildlife and have historically been used by indigenous peoples.
- Shagbark hickory is common across eastern Nebraska, identified by its shaggy peeling bark. Shellbark hickory is now uncommon, found in the southeast part of the state.
- Several non-native hickories like pecan, mockernut, bitternut, and pignut have been introduced as ornamental landscape trees.
- When planting hickories, select cultivars suitable for the location and microclimate. Give them plenty of space, fertile soil, and full sun. Young trees need irrigation until established.
- Hickories grow slowly but transform landscapes with their bold presence, graceful foliage, wildlife benefits, and connections to Nebraska's ecology and culture.
- Native shagbark and shellbark hickories are ecologically and culturally important trees in Nebraska warranting preservation efforts. Non-native hickories can make excellent additions to gardens when selected and cared for properly.
1. Shagbark Hickory
The shagbark hickory is native across most of eastern Nebraska. This tall deciduous tree can reach 60-80 feet at maturity.
Its most recognizable feature is the long, peeling bark strips that give it a "shaggy" look. The compound leaves typically have five leaflets.
Yellow fall color is another distinguishing trait.
The shagbark produces small, edible yet bitter nuts. These nuts are an important food source for wildlife like squirrels, foxes, rabbits, beavers, raccoons, turkeys, and others.
Early Native American tribes also utilized the nuts.
The tough, resilient wood has served many purposes, from indigenous tools and bows to pioneer wagon wheels and ax handles.
Today it's used for specialty products like tool handles, ladder rungs, and smoking wood.
2. Shellbark Hickory
The shellbark hickory, a close relative of the shagbark, grows in southeastern Nebraska.
It is the largest North American hickory, capable of exceeding 100 feet in height.
As its name suggests, shellbark bark appears to "shell off" the trunk in large plates.
Its compound leaves typically have seven leaflets compared to the shagbark's five.
The nuts are also bigger with thicker shells.
Wildlife consume the nuts just as they do shagbark nuts.
The strong, hard wood has a wide array of uses.
Due to extensive land clearing for agriculture, the shellbark is now uncommon in Nebraska. Conservation efforts seek to preserve the remaining native trees.
The pecan is the most commonly planted non-native hickory in Nebraska.
Native to southern states, improved pecan cultivars can survive Nebraska's climate.
The pecan's elegant compound leaves, scaly bark, and delicious nuts make it a popular landscape tree.
Pecans can exceed 100 feet tall under ideal conditions.
Most pecans for Nebraska are cold-hardy cultivars grafted for superior nut production.
4. Mockernut Hickory
The mockernut hickory is native to southern Missouri but can grow well across most of Nebraska.
It produces bitter mockernuts enclosed in thick husks, providing food for wildlife. Mockernut displays beautiful golden fall color and large compound leaves.
Mature heights reach 60-80 feet.
The mockernut prefers fertile, moist soils and is somewhat drought tolerant when established.
This adaptable non-native is a great landscape addition.
5. Bitternut Hickory
Bitternut hickory can be found across eastern Nebraska, primarily planted ornamentally.
It has sulfur-yellow buds that open to broad 8-11 leaflet compound leaves.
Bitternut produces small, bitter nuts enjoyed by wildlife.
At around 60 feet tall, bitternut grows well in moist soils and is pH-adaptable.
Its relatively fast growth and yellow fall color are tempting features, but beware - the buds and nuts contain a toxin that can be harmful if eaten.
6. Pignut Hickory
The pignut hickory is uncommon but occasionally found planted in eastern Nebraska.
Native to the eastern U.S., it is named for its small, bitter nuts.
A large forest tree capable of reaching 80+ feet tall, its compound leaves normally have 5-7 leaflets.
Pignut prefers moist, fertile soils and can tolerate shade or full sun.
While difficult to find, pignut can make an excellent addition for Nebraska landowners interested in rare trees.
Growing Hickories in Nebraska
When selecting a hickory, consider your location and microclimate. Consult local nurseries to choose cold-hardy cultivars suitable for the area.
Hickories perform best in fertile, moist, well-draining soil but most tolerate dry conditions. Avoid wet, poorly draining sites.
Plant in full sun for optimal growth and nut production. Young trees need consistent watering until established but become quite drought-tolerant.
Look for protected locations away from strong winds whenever possible.
Hickory wood is dense and prone to storm damage in very windy areas.
Sheltered eastern or northern exposures are ideal. Give hickories plenty of space to grow, at minimum 30-50 feet between trees.
Be patient - hickories are slow growing and can take a decade or more to mature and bear nuts. Proper care and pruning will keep them healthy and productive.
Before You Go
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