Hickory vs Elm Trees: A Comparison

Hickory and elm trees are both common types of trees found throughout North America and beyond.

While they share some similarities, there are key differences between these two tree varieties in terms of appearance, wood properties, uses, and types.

This article will examine how hickory stacks up against elm across these categories.

Key Takeaways

  • Hickory trees have a tall, columnar form with shaggy bark and compound leaves. The wood is extremely dense, hard, and shock-resistant.
  • Elm trees have a vase-shaped canopy with ragged, peeling bark. The leaves are oval with double serrated edges. Elm wood is softer and more pliable than hickory.
  • Hickory wood is ideal for tool handles and furniture due to its strength. Historically, elm was used for wagon wheels, barrels, and chairs because it is resistant to splitting.
  • There are around 18 species of hickory and 30-35 species of elm. Common types of hickory include shagbark, mockernut, and pecan. For elm, some widespread varieties are American, slippery, and winged elm.
  • Hickory wood has ring-porous structure while elm wood is more diffuse-porous. The two types of wood have distinctly different working properties and uses.
  • Both hickory and elm provide attractive, shade-giving landscape trees, but have their own distinguishing features and characteristics. Understanding these differences allows proper selection and care.

Hickory vs Elm Trees


Hickory trees are tall, deciduous trees that can reach heights of over 100 feet. They have pinnate leaves composed of 5-9 elongated leaflets with serrated edges.

The bark has a shaggy appearance, with long vertical ridges that peel away in strips as the tree ages.

In the fall, the leaves turn golden yellow.

Elm trees also grow tall, reaching 60-80 feet on average. The bark has a distinctive appearance, peeling away in thin, flat, vertical strips to expose the inner layer.

This gives elm trees a particularly ragged, shaggy look.

The leaves are oval in shape with double serrated edges and are arranged in an alternate pattern along branches.

In autumn, elm leaves turn yellow.

Both trees have a spreading canopy when grown in an open environment.

Hickory tends to have a taller, more columnar crown while elm has a more vase-like shape, widening near the base.

Wood Properties

One of the main differences between these species is their wood. Hickory wood is extremely hard and dense, known for its shock resistance and stiffness.

It's considered one of the strongest and hardest woods in North America.

The heartwood is reddish brown while the sapwood is nearly white.

Elm wood, particularly that of the American elm, is much softer in comparison.

It's flexible and less prone to splintering, which made it favorable for uses like wagon wheel hubs and chair seats.

The sapwood is light-colored while the heartwood appears reddish-brown.

Due to its density and hardness, hickory wood is difficult to work with using hand tools.

Elm, on the other hand, is relatively easy to saw and nail.


The robust strength and hardness of hickory wood make it ideal for handles of tools like axes, rakes, hammers, and shovels.

It's also popular for use in the construction of furniture due to its resilience. Manufacturers use hickory wood to produce ladders, crates, baskets, and pallets.

It also provides high-quality fuel for wood-burning stoves and smokers.

Historically, elm wood was important in the manufacturing of boxes, crates, and baskets.

The wood's resistance to splitting meant it was also used for wagon wheel hubs, barrel hoops, and chair seats.

Native Americans used elm for making canoes. Today, elm continues to be used for furniture, cabinetry, and veneer.

Its graceful form makes it a popular choice for ornamental landscape trees.

Wyatt Keith

Wyatt is a hickory tree expert with 25 years of experience studying and working with these majestic trees. Wyatt has worked on various research projects and has conducted extensive field work, studying the growth and behavior of hickory trees in different regions of the country. In addition to his research, he has also worked with landowners and land managers to help them properly care for and manage their hickory trees. Wyatt is passionate about sharing his knowledge and expertise with others, and he frequently gives talks and presentations on hickory trees to various audiences.

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