Shagbark and shellbark hickory trees are two of the most common hickory species found in North America.
While they share some similar characteristics, there are also some key differences between these two types of hickory trees.
In this article, we’ll explore how to identify each species and highlight the main points that distinguish shagbark hickory from shellbark hickory.
- Bark - Shagbark has long, vertical peeling strips of bark that give it a shaggy look. Shellbark has shorter peeling plates and overall smoother bark.
- Leaves - Shagbark has 5 leaflets per leaf while shellbark has 7-9. Shagbark leaflets are smaller.
- Nuts - Shagbark nuts are small and round. Shellbark nuts are much larger and oval-shaped.
- Growth habit - Shagbark grows taller with a straighter trunk. Shellbark is shorter with a more irregular, spreading crown.
- Range - Shagbark has a wider range in the eastern U.S. Shellbark is mainly in the Midwest and Ohio River Valley.
- Habitat - Both prefer moist, rich soils. Shagbark in floodplains, shellbark on uplands.
- Wildlife value - Nuts of both are an important food source. Twigs and foliage also provide food.
- Uses - Wood used for tools, bats, flooring due to strength. Nuts edible and can be substituted for pecans. Sap can be tapped for syrup
Appearance and Bark
One of the most noticeable differences between shagbark and shellbark hickory trees is their bark.
As the name suggests, shagbark hickory has bark that peels away in long, vertical strips, giving the trunk a shaggy appearance.
These strips are usually about a foot long. Shellbark hickory, on the other hand, has bark that peels away in shorter plates rather than long strips.
These plates are only about 6-8 inches long.
When mature, shellbark hickory trees tend to have smoother looking bark overall compared to the shaggy bark of shagbark hickory.
In terms of color, the bark of both species is similar - grey and tan outer bark with reddish inner bark underneath that is exposed where the outer bark peels away.
However, the inner bark of shagbark hickory is usually more orange-brown compared to the darker red-brown inner bark of shellbark hickory.
When it comes to the leaves, there are also some noticeable differences between the two species.
Shagbark hickory leaves usually have just 5 leaflets per leaf.
Shellbark hickory, on the other hand, generally has between 7-9 leaflets per leaf.
The leaflets of shagbark hickory also tend to be smaller in size compared to shellbark.
Shagbark leaflets are usually 4-6 inches long and 2-3 inches wide.
Shellbark leaflets can reach up to 8 inches long and 5 inches wide.
Both species have leaves that turn golden yellow in autumn, but shellbark hickory foliage often has a more vibrant golden color in the fall compared to shagbark.
The hickory nuts produced by these two trees are also quite different.
Shagbark hickory nuts are small and round.
Their husks are thin, so the nutshell underneath is easily visible. The kernel inside the nut is sweet and edible.
Shellbark hickory nuts are much larger and oval-shaped.
Their husks are thick, completely enclosing the nutshell and kernel inside.
Once hulled, shellbark nuts reveal very large, thick-shelled nuts containing sweet, edible kernels that are prized by foragers.
So in summary, shellbark nuts are distinctly larger and oval-shaped compared to the small, round nuts produced by shagbark trees.
In terms of growth habit, shagbark hickory trees generally have a taller, straighter trunk compared to shellbark.
Shagbarks can reach heights of 75-90 feet at maturity, with trunk diameters of 2-3 feet.
Shellbark hickory usually has a shorter trunk and spreads out lower to the ground.
Mature trees reach about 60-80 feet tall with trunks 2-2.5 feet in diameter.
Shellbarks also tend to have a more irregular, spreading crown compared to the oval crown shape of shagbark.
Both species develop rugged, shaggy looking bark as they mature, but shellbark bark has a smoother texture overall compared to shagbark.
Range and Habitat
Shagbark and shellbark hickories occupy somewhat different ranges across North America.
Shagbark is found throughout the eastern United States, ranging from New York down to Florida and as far west as Texas.
Shellbark has a more limited range, found mainly in the upper Midwest and Ohio River Valley region.
In terms of habitat, both species prefer rich, moist soils.
Shagbark hickory is commonly found growing in floodplains and bottomlands.
Shellbark thrives on limy, fertile soils and is more often found on uplands.
Both can occur as scattered trees or in groves within deciduous forests containing oaks, maples, and other tree species.
The nuts produced by these two hickory species are an important food source for wildlife.
Shagbark nuts are eaten by species like squirrels, chipmunks, and deer.
Shellbark nuts, being larger and more plentiful, are especially valued by wildlife and can draw in a variety of mammals and birds that feed on hickory nuts in the fall.
The twigs and foliage of both hickories also provide food for wildlife.
Deer and rabbits browse on the twigs and leaves.
Hickory foliage provides habitat for birds and makes a favorite food source for caterpillars of species like the hickory horned devil.
Shagbark and shellbark hickory trees also provide excellent habitat for wildlife.
Their large size, spreading canopies, and shedding bark provide nesting and den sites for birds and small mammals.
Uses for Humans
In addition to wildlife benefits, shagbark and shellbark hickories have a long history of providing useful products for people.
Native Americans traditionally used the wood for items like bows, lacrosse stick handles, and tool handles due to its strength, flexibility, and shock resistance.
The tough, durable wood is also popular for use as tool handles, baseball bats, flooring, and furniture.
The edible nuts, once extracted from their hard shells, are enjoyed by foragers and can be used in recipes as a substitute for pecans.
The sweet, richly-flavored nutmeats can be eaten raw, cooked, or roasted for a tasty wild treat.
The sap of hickory trees can also be tapped to produce syrup with a distinctive smoky, earthy flavor.
Both shagbark and shellbark produce a palatable syrup.
Before You Go
If your looking to buy oak trees or any other type of tree, I highly recommend NatureHills.com.
They always have sales and discounted nursery stock and are well worth your time to check out.
[Related Article: Mockernut vs Pignut Hickory: Understanding the Differences]