Wisconsin is home to two species of hickory trees: the common Shagbark Hickory and the rarer Bitternut Hickory.
These deciduous hardwood trees are an important part of the state's forests, known for their strong, flexible wood and edible nuts.
- The Shagbark Hickory is the most common and economically important hickory species in the state, known for its shaggy bark and edible nuts. It has a statewide distribution.
- The Bitternut Hickory is a rarer species in Wisconsin, limited primarily to the southern part of the state. It produces bitter tasting nuts.
- Both species have hard, strong wood that is valued for making tool handles and other products where shock resistance is important.
- Shagbark Hickory prefers moist bottomlands and uplands with rich soil. Bitternut grows best on wooded slopes and streambanks.
- In addition to their wood products, hickory trees provide food for wildlife, yellow fall color, and attractive ornamental bark that peels in strips.
- The hickory genus Carya contains many valuable timber trees, but only these two species are native to Wisconsin forests.
- Hickories face pressure from overharvesting and habitat loss across their range. Conservation efforts help protect these ecologically and economically important trees.
1. Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata)
The Shagbark Hickory is the most prevalent hickory species in Wisconsin, accounting for about 59% of the total hickory volume in the state.
It is a large, long-lived tree that can grow over 100 feet tall with an upright, straight trunk when grown in the open.
The Shagbark Hickory is named for its distinctive gray, shaggy bark that peels back in long, curved strips as the tree matures.
This shedding of outer bark exposes the smooth inner bark, which is reddish brown in color. The leaves are large, composed of 5-7 leaflets.
In the fall, the leaves turn golden yellow. The twigs are stout and brownish gray. The Shagbark produces large terminal buds with outcurved tips.
It has edible hickory nuts with four-segmented husks that split all the way to the base when ripe.
Habitat and Range
This species prefers moist bottomlands and fertile uplands. It can grow on a variety of soil types, from heavy clay to sandy loam, but does best on deep, rich soil.
The Shagbark Hickory is found throughout the eastern and central United States.
In Wisconsin, it grows statewide but reaches its largest size in the southern part of the state.
The hard, strong wood of the Shagbark Hickory is used to make tool handles, baseball bats, flooring, furniture, and other products where strength and shock resistance is valued.
It is also a popular firewood due to its high BTUs. The sweet nuts are consumed by wildlife and humans.
This species is also planted as an ornamental shade tree, known for its attractive bark and yellow fall color.
2. Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis)
The Bitternut Hickory is a rarer species in Wisconsin, comprising only about 10% of the total hickory volume.
It is a medium-sized tree, typically growing 60-80 feet tall with a narrow, upright crown.
The Bitternut Hickory has smooth gray bark with shallow furrows. The long strips often found peeling off Shagbark Hickories are generally not present on this species.
The twigs are slender and yellowish brown. The buds are small and rounded at the tips. The leaves usually have 7-9 long, narrow leaflets.
In the fall, the leaves turn bright yellow.
The Bitternut gets its name from its small, bitter tasting nuts. The nut husks are thin and only split part way open.
Habitat and Range
This species grows scattered throughout deciduous forests, often as a minor component, but is seldom a dominant tree.
It thrives on moist, rich soil in wooded slopes and streambanks.
The Bitternut Hickory has a wider range than the Shagbark, extending from southern New England west to Minnesota and south to Florida and Texas.
In Wisconsin, it is most common in the southern part of the state.
Bitternut wood is hard and shock-resistant like other hickories, but it is considered inferior to Shagbark and is rarely used commercially.
The bitter taste limits use of the nuts for humans, but they are consumed by wildlife.
Bitternut makes a nice ornamental shade tree, but demand is lower than for the Shagbark.
It is also susceptible to insect damage when grown outside its native range.
Before You Go
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