Hickory trees are a ubiquitous sight in forests across much of eastern North America. With their tall, straight trunks and compound leaves, hickories are unmistakable.
But on closer inspection, it becomes clear that not all hickories are created equal.
Two species in particular - the shagbark hickory and the red hickory - share some similarities but also have distinctive differences.
- Shagbark hickory is named for its loose, shaggy bark that peels vertically from the trunk. Red hickory bark peels slightly but not dramatically.
- Both trees produce strong, flexible wood that has been used historically for products like tool handles and wagon wheels.
- Shagbark hickory is more common in the eastern half of the United States, while red hickory ranges farther south and west.
- Shagbark leaves usually have 5 leaflets, red hickory 5-9. Red hickory twigs and buds have a reddish tint.
- The two species occupy similar habitats, but shagbark is more prevalent in moist bottomlands compared to the drier slope preference of red hickory.
- Small details like leaf color, crown shape, and twig color can also help distinguish these two similar hickory species.
- Proper identification of tree species allows for a greater appreciation of the diversity of the natural world.
Appearance and Bark
At first glance, both shagbark and red hickory trees look relatively similar. They typically reach heights of 80-100 feet at maturity, with upright oval crowns.
The leaves are compound, made up of 5-9 leaflets growing oppositely along a stem.
However, the most striking difference between the two species is in the bark.
As the name implies, shagbark hickory has very shaggy bark that peels off in long, vertical strips as the tree ages.
This gives the trunk a very distinctive ragged appearance. Red hickory, on the other hand, has bark that peels slightly but not nearly to the same degree as shagbark.
It could be described as only somewhat shaggy.
The wood of both trees is known for its strength, hardness, and flexibility. Shagbark hickory is prized for products like tool handles, ladder rungs, and furniture.
The flexibility of the wood makes it well-suited for uses that need bending and impact resistance. Red hickory is similar, though its wood may be slightly denser and stronger.
Historical uses were comparable - wagon wheels, barrel hoops, bows, and more relied on the toughness of red hickory wood.
In modern times, hickory wood from both species is still used for products where strength, hardness, and elasticity are beneficial, like baseball bats and drum sticks.
The two types of hickory are often mixed together and sold simply as "hickory" wood without distinguishing the exact species.
Habitat and Range
Shagbark and red hickory occupy similar habitats, but shagbark is more commonly found in the eastern half of the United States.
It grows best in moist bottomlands and fertile uplands. Red hickory has a more southerly range, from southern Iowa east to New Jersey and south to Texas and Florida.
Though they overlap across much of this region, red hickory tends to prefer drier slopes and ridges compared to shagbark.
Shagbark hickory is named the state tree of both Indiana and Kentucky, highlighting its prevalence and importance in those areas.
Both species extend into the Appalachian Mountains, but red hickory becomes rare at higher elevations compared to the shagbark.
Leaves and Flowers
The leaves of the two hickories share the typical compound arrangement but differ in details. Shagbark leaves normally have 5 leaflets per leaf, occasionally 3 or 7.
Red hickory may have 5-9 leaflets but most commonly 7. The leaflets themselves are quite similar - singly arranged with toothed edges.
They turn golden yellow in fall before dropping.
The pollen-bearing male flowers form dangling catkins that emerge from the buds before the leaves.
The female flowers are small and green in short spikes on the branch tips. In this regard the two species are essentially identical.
Flowering takes place in spring, and like other hickories, they are wind pollinated.
The fruits mature in the fall - thick, green husked nuts enclosed in a four-part husk that splits open at maturity.
The signature hickory nuts are nearly round with a pointy tip, and provided an important food source for wildlife.
Other Distinguishing Features
Beyond the differences in bark, leaves, range, and habitat, there are a few other subtle ways to distinguish shagbark and red hickory.
Shagbark typically has a taller, straighter trunk, while red hickory leans more towards an irregular, spreading crown.
Shagbark leaves turn golden yellow in autumn, compared to the orange-yellow of red hickory foliage.
And the twigs and buds of red hickory have a reddish tint, reflected in its common name.