Rhode Island's forests are dominated by oak and hickory trees, which thrive in the state's humid continental climate.
Several species of hickory are native to Rhode Island, while other non-native species have been introduced over time.
Hickory trees are valued for their strong, durable wood as well as their edible nuts.
- Native hickory species like bitternut, pignut, and sweet pignut are found statewide and are important ecologically and economically.
- Non-native hickory varieties have not been reported, but could potentially establish themselves over time as forest composition changes. Proper identification is key.
- Hickory wood is prized for uses like tools, sports equipment, furniture, and smoking meats due to its strength, hardness and resilience.
- Hickory nuts provide food for wildlife and humans. They can be consumed raw, roasted, or used in recipes.
- Hickory trees contribute to healthy forests in Rhode Island by providing wildlife habitat, stabilizing soil, recycling nutrients, and more.
- Monitoring Rhode Island's oak-hickory forests will provide insight into how native and non-native hickory species fare over time.
- Proper identification using bark, leaf, twig, fruit, and site characteristics can distinguish between native and introduced hickory trees.
- Hickory trees have historical significance, providing food and materials to Native Americans and early Rhode Island settlers.
Native Hickory Trees
The bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) is native to Rhode Island and is found statewide.
These large trees can grow up to 100 feet tall and live up to 200 years.
Bitternut hickory is named for its bitter tasting nuts, which have a sulfur-like odor and taste.
The buds are egg-shaped with yellow-green scales, while the leaves are 8-12 inches long with 7 to 11 leaflets.
Yellow fall foliage is another identifying feature.
The gray bark is smooth in young trees but becomes furrowed with age.
Bitternut hickory thrives in moist soils and is shade intolerant.
The wood is used commercially for furniture, flooring, lumber, and charcoal.
Pignut hickory (Carya glabra) is another native Rhode Island hickory species found statewide.
These trees reach 60-80 feet tall and can live for over 200 years.
The name refers to the pear-shaped or oval nuts which are far less bitter than bitternut hickory nuts.
Grayish bark with shaggy ridges characterizes mature trees.
Leaves are 6-10 inches long with 5 leaflets that turn golden yellow in autumn.
Pignut hickory grows best on dry ridges and hillsides.
The strong, shock-resistant wood has many uses including tool handles, ladder rungs, and smokewood for meat curing.
Sweet Pignut Hickory
Also called red hickory or swamp hickory, sweet pignut hickory (Carya ovalis) is native to the state.
These large deciduous trees reach 80 feet tall and can live over 300 years.
As the name implies, the nuts are sweet and edible.
The shaggy bark is a distinguishing feature, starting out smooth and developing platy ridges as it matures.
Leaves are 6-9 inches long with 5-7 leaflets.
In fall, the leaves turn golden bronze. Sweet pignut hickory grows in moist soils along streams and swamps.
The hardy wood is used for a variety of applications including furniture, flooring, and tool handles.
Non-Native Hickory Trees
While there are no specific reports of non-native hickory species introduced and naturalized in Rhode Island, some hickory hybrids and varieties could potentially occur.
Throughout the eastern US, shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) and shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa) are two native species known to hybridize where their ranges overlap.
These natural hybrids can be challenging to distinguish from the parent species.
While the emerald ash borer (an invasive beetle) has not been reported in Rhode Island, it has devastated ash tree populations in nearby states.
As native ash trees decline, other species like hickories may proliferate and fill the gaps in the forest canopy left by dying ash trees.
Non-native plants have higher representation in Rhode Island forests compared to surrounding areas, so new hickory varieties could potentially establish themselves over time.
Before You Go
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