The eastern deciduous forests of North America are home to over a dozen hickory species within the genus Carya.
Two of the most common are the shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) and the mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa).
While they share some similarities, shagbark and mockernut hickories can be distinguished by differences in appearance, habitat preferences, nut traits, and uses.
- Shagbark hickory is distinguished by its shaggy bark that peels away in vertical strips, while mockernut hickory has tight, ridged bark.
- Shagbark leaves usually have 5 leaflets, mockernut 7-9.
- Mockernut nuts are much larger compared to other hickories, enclosed in a thick 4-part husk.
- Mockernut favors well-drained upland sites like ridges and hillsides. Shagbark is more flexible with habitat.
- Shagbark nuts offer a richer, sweeter flavor over the bitter taste of mockernuts.
- The tough wood of both trees is valued for uses like tool handles and sporting goods.
- As long-lived giants of eastern forests, hickories provide food and habitat for wildlife.
- While sharing some overlap, shagbark and mockernut have distinct differences that contribute to forest diversity.
Bark and Visual Features
One of the most identifiable features of the shagbark hickory is its mature bark. As the name suggests, long vertical strips of bark peel away from the trunk, giving it a shaggy look.
This starts when the tree is around 20 years old. In contrast, the mockernut hickory keeps its tight, ridged bark its whole life.
Neither tree has substantial lenticels like some other hickories.
The two species can also be told apart by their leaves and nuts. Shagbark leaves usually have five leaflets while mockernut leaves typically have seven to nine.
Mockernut nuts are also much larger in size compared to other hickories. They are enclosed in a thick 4-part husk that splits open when ripe.
Shagbark nuts are rounded and only about half the size.
Both shagbark and mockernut hickories are found throughout the eastern U.S. from southern Ontario to Florida and east Texas.
However, mockernuts tend to thrive in more specific sites compared to the adaptable shagbark.
Mockernuts are most abundant on well-drained ridges, slopes, and hillsides. They favor dry soils found in upland hardwood forests.
Shagbarks grow in those areas as well but are also found along streams and in bottomland forests that experience occasional flooding.
In terms of climate, the mockernut reaches its northern limit faster than shagbark.
It is rare to encounter mockernut hickories much north of lower Michigan or southern New England, while shagbarks extend their range further into Canada.
Wood and Nut Uses
The tough, shock-resistant wood of hickories lends itself well to tool handles and sporting equipment that take heavy impacts.
Both shagbark and mockernut are used this way.
Shagbark is sometimes preferred for a more rustic look in furniture due to its shaggy bark appearance.
Mockernuts can also substitute for pecan in some paneling and furniture applications. The strength and elasticity of their wood makes it suitable for archery bows as well.
Historically, both species provided Native Americans material for bow-making, lacrosse stick handles, and ramrods for flintlock rifles.
The edible nuts are consumed by both humans and wildlife. Shagbarks offer a higher yield and richer flavor, while mockernuts have thick husks and bitter taste.
This gives the mockernut its nickname as it is not actually closely related to black walnuts.
Wildlife still consume the nuts and seedlings benefit from the caching habits of rodents like squirrels.
Flavor and Nutrition
There is no contest when it comes to the superior flavor of shagbark nuts. They have a rich, sweet, smoky taste many liken to a maple syrup flavor.
The oils provide a high calorie content. While mockernuts are edible, they tend to be bitter with astringent properties.
Extensive leaching and boiling is required to make them palatable.
Some speculate that the difference lies in the sap content, as mockernuts produce more milky sap. Soil conditions and genetics likely play a role as well.
Overall, shagbarks offer a higher quality edible nut for humans. But mockernuts still provide wildlife with important fats and nutrients to get through winter.
As towering hardwoods, shagbark and mockernut hickories fill an important ecological role in eastern forests.
Their large crops of nuts provide food for myriad wildlife like deer, bears, squirrels, and birds. This fattens them up before winter.
The dense wood also makes excellent cover and nesting sites for certain animals.
Slower growing hickories can stand for centuries, with ages reaching 350 to over 500 years. Eventually wind, storms, disease, or insects like the hickory bark beetle will fell the dying giants.
Their decaying wood nourishes the soil and creates habitat for mosses and fungi. Young hickories may sprout from the stumps and roots.
Overall, mockernuts tend to live slightly longer than shagbarks.
But both species prominently shape the canopy architecture and enrichment of the forest ecosystems they inhabit.
Their contributions live on even after the elder trees pass on.