Hickory trees are a common sight across many parts of Washington DC, adding beauty and shade to parks, yards, and streetscapes.
While several hickory species are native to the DC area, other non-native varieties have also been introduced over the years.
This article explores the native and non-native hickory trees that can be found growing in Washington DC.
Here are some key takeaways from the article:
- There are 4 main species of hickory native to the Washington DC area: shagbark, shellbark, pignut, and mockernut hickory. They provide shade, nuts, and wood.
- Several non-native hickories have been introduced to DC over time, like the pecan, bitternut, and water hickory. Pecans are the most commonly planted.
- Many hickory trees in DC, both native and non-native, have suffered major diebacks in recent decades due to unknown causes.
- Preserving a diversity of both native and non-native hickory species through proactive management will be important for the future of DC's hickory tree populations.
- Native hickories like shagbark and shellbark have characteristic shaggy, peeling bark, while non-natives like pecan produce edible nuts.
- While native to wetlands elsewhere, water hickory is rare in DC. Pecans are the most abundant non-native hickory planted in the area.
- Research is still needed to determine the exact causes of the hickory diebacks in DC in order to better protect the remaining trees.
Native Hickory Species
There are four main hickory tree species native to the Washington DC region:
1. Shagbark Hickory
The shagbark hickory is distinguished by its loose, peeling bark that gives the trunk a shaggy appearance.
This species can grow quite large, up to 100 feet tall, with an oval-shaped canopy that provides dense shade.
During the fall, the shagbark produces sweet edible nuts.
While shagbark hickories are uncommon as street trees in DC, they can occasionally be found in parks and other wooded areas.
2. Shellbark Hickory
Closely related to the shagbark, the shellbark hickory has even shaggier bark that peels off in larger plates rather than small strips.
Shellbark hickories are the largest of the native hickory species, capable of reaching heights over 100 feet.
The wood of the shellbark is sometimes used for cabinetry and tool handles.
Shellbark hickories are rare in DC, found only in a few nature preserves.
3. Pignut Hickory
The pignut hickory is a medium-sized hickory species, maturing at 50-60 feet tall. Its bark is smooth and tight rather than shaggy.
Pignut hickories produce bitter tasting nuts that are not consumed by humans.
This species is native across the DC area and can be found in parks such as Rock Creek Park.
4. Mockernut Hickory
Mockernut hickory is named for its thick-shelled nuts that offer little in the way of edible meat inside.
It is a large forest tree reaching 60-80 feet tall at maturity.
The mockernut bark has ridged and furrowed plates. While native to DC, mockernuts are uncommon and found primarily in isolated nature areas.
Non-Native Hickory Species
In addition to native hickory trees, Washington DC is also home to several hickory species that were introduced from other parts of North America:
The pecan is the most commonly planted non-native hickory species in DC. It is distinguished by its oblong, olive-colored nuts with rich, sweet meat.
While native to the southcentral US, pecan trees thrive in Washington DC, where they are grown for their tasty edible nuts.
Pecan wood is also valued for furniture and smoking foods like barbecue.
6. Bitternut Hickory
The bitternut hickory produces small, bitter nuts and is named for its very hard, strong wood.
It has yellow buds that distinguish it from the mockernut, which has sulfur-colored buds.
Bitternut hickories can occasionally be found in DC landscapes, but are uncommon.
7. Water Hickory
This semi-aquatic hickory species featuring shaggy bark is rare in the Washington DC area.
It is native to wet bottomlands of the southeastern US. Water hickory has edible nuts that ripen in the fall.
Threats to DC Hickories
Unfortunately, many hickory trees in Washington DC have suffered major diebacks from unknown causes over the past few decades.
Both native and non-native hickory species have been affected, with widespread deaths particularly noted in the Pecan hickories.
Research into the cause of the diebacks is still ongoing, with theories ranging from drought stress to invasive pests.
Proactive management will be needed to conserve Washington DC's treasured hickory populations for the future.
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