Hickory Trees: Types, Bark and Leaves – Identification Guide (With Pictures)

A hickory tree is a nut-producing that’s sturdy and enhances the landscape. It is a large, deciduous tree with ridged, flakey bark and serrated-edged leaves. A hickory tree can grow to between 60 and 80 feet and 40 feet wide.

This article on hickory trees will help you understand the descriptions of hickory leaves, bark, types, and other important details that will help you identify them without any problem.

Hickory Trees

You will find a hickory tree primarily in the Midwest and upper Midwest, the south and north England and beyond. They are believed to be high on the list of trees that are used for many reasons.

They have dense canopies, so they shade landscapes and most of them bear edible nuts. Since they are hardwood trees, they grow slowly. Hickory wood is heavy, hard and has amazing bending properties. You will find the wood in tool handles, industrial equipment, and home décor.

Hickory Tree: Origin

They are the members of the Genus Carya and are found in 19 species around the world. They are majorly seen in North America but also can be found in Asia. They are deciduous – meaning that they shed leaves annually. They also can be called angiosperms as they possess an enclosed, flowering seed. They have beautiful yellow flowers and flowering spikes called catkins.

The hickory tree belongs to the walnut family (Juglandaceae) and the most common hickories are shagbark hickory, shellbark hickory, pignut hickory and bitternut hickory. We will discuss them in detail as the article proceeds further.

Hickory Tree: Characteristics

They can grow to about 30m and possess leaves that are composed of 3 to 17 leaflets each. The leaves of some species turn bright yellow in autumn. They have male and female flowers that lack petals. Both types of flowers grow on the same tree but in different clusters. Males grow in hanging catkins while females in spikes of the tree.

The fruits are oval-shaped and enclosed in a four-valve husk that split after maturity. In most species, this nut is thick but in a particular species called Pecan, they are thin. When the seed germinates, the fruit splits into two parts. Please note that all hickory fruits are not edible. Some of them are extremely bitter.

Hickories are tolerant of almost all types of soil, but they generally prefer rich moist soil. They also prefer sunny areas to grow. The only thing is that the soil should not be soggy. Out of all the species, the water hickory performs the best in moisture and that is why it is found in wet areas like Florida and Texas. A hickory tree can live hundreds of years once fully established.

Hickory Tree Bark

Hickory Tree Bark

Hickory trees have ornamental bark, with ridges running vertically and curling outwards. The furrows curl outwards at the top and bottom giving the bark a shabby, rugged look. Usually, a hickory tree bark is gray and darkens as the tree matures. The spaces between these ridges are of varying lengths, they can be close or apart.

Hickory Tree Wood


All types of hickory woods appear similar if you look from a distance. If you look closely, you will see some distinct identification features. Hickory wood is strong, hard and durable. The color is a medium brown with a reddish hue. The wood may also have yellowish or gold-colored highlights.

Hickory wood is of different qualities depending on the species. High-quality hickory wood has solid, straight grains. The quality is consistent and uniform so high-end businessmen prefer the wood. Low-quality hickory wood has knots and streaks. It has a rusty appearance, so it is ideal for cabins and lodges.


A hickory tree produces wood that is hard and stiff. There are woods that are much stronger than hickory wood, but the reason why hickory is preferred is that the combination of strength, hardness, durability and shock resistance is not found in any other commercial wood. Paddles are often made from hickory wood. Tool handles, wheels, bows, stick handles, agriculture tools are some examples of hickory wood use.

However, since it has a grain structure, it is more prone to moisture absorption and susceptible to shrinkage. It swells when there is a change in humidity. Baseball bats were formerly made from hickory wood.

It was also used for the construction of early aircraft.

Hickory is preferred by people when it comes to firewood because it has high energy content. Hickory adds an amazing smokey flavour to the meat. Hickory wood is also used for wood flooring due to the resistance it displays.

Hickory Tree leaves

Hickory Tree leaves

They have long and narrow leaves. The leaves are composed of clusters of leaflets. The leaflets grow on opposite sides of the stem. The leaves are oval-shaped with pointed leaves. The terminal leaf is usually the largest in size. You will always find several leaflets in a compound leaf.

Hickory Tree Nuts

Hickory Tree Nuts

Hickory trees are also prized for their tasty nuts. The nuts look like green balls and as the tree matures, they turn into a hard brown color. Nutshells are egg-shaped and cover a delicious hickory nut. The nuts are white or tan in colour. Hickory nuts are like fleshy fruits and the best nuts are found in shagbark and shellbark hickories.

How to Identify Hickory Tree Parts?

Bark – The bark is scaly and has ridges. They are curled from top and bottom. The bark is extremely beautiful and enhances the landscape. The shagbark tree has a rough bark as compared to the shellbark hickory.

Leaves – Leaves turn to a beautiful yellow color in Autumn. The leaf is composed of multiple leaflets with a big terminal leaf.

Nuts – Hickory nuts are tasty and sweet (not all). The shagbark tree and pecan tree nuts are most popular and delicious.

Where Do Hickory Trees Grow?

Out of the 19 species in the world, 13 are found in North America and the rest five can be found in Asian countries like India, China, and Vietnam. To help you identify them properly, we will list some common hickory species and where they are found:

Shagbark hickory grows in the US (zone 4 to 8) because of the fertile, moist, and well-drained soil. You will recognize a hickory tree from its ornamental bark that enhances the landscape. Shellbark hickory is also found in the US (zone 5 to 8) and handles occasional flooding very well. Mockernut hickory tolerates dry sites and hence is found in zones 4 through 9.

Where Can You Plant Your Hickory Tree?

Hickories require a large area as they are huge and shed leaves all year round. Choose a location where the tree will not interfere with your power lines. Hickory trees should be used for the shade so choose an area that requires it. You cannot change the location after planting as they have long taproots.

All hickories have a substance called juglone which is toxic for other plants that they grow around them. Plants affected by this substance show signs of death. So, plant your hickory at least 80 feet away from other plants. If you want the hickory to brighten your landscape, plant them in a big garden or a park.

How Big Does the Hickory Tree Get?

Hickories are notoriously slow growers. They can take up to 25 years to harvest nuts and at least 40 years to produce the first crop. However, the size varies as the species change. Shagbark hickory is very large hickory that can grow up to 70 to 90 feet tall.

It sometimes even grows up to 120 feet tall. Its canopy spreads from 50 to 70 feet wide. The trunk is also very wide, up to 3 feet. Mockernut hickory is also large and grows in hills and ridges. It can tolerate dry soil.

Pignut hickory is slightly smaller than mockernut hickory growing up to 50 to 80 feet tall. They can also be grown in dry soil. There are some smaller hickories as well, like the Laney’s hickory and the scrub hickory. They grow up to 10 to 30 feet with multiple trunks.

Hickory Tree: What Considerations Should Be Made While Purchasing One?

Not just a hickory tree, but if you decide to buy any tree from a cultivator, make sure there are no signs of diseases or pests. Trees with discoloured or deformed foliage will not survive for long. Do not buy hickories that have grown out of the nursery container as it will be difficult to plant them again.

Research on the internet and find which hickory will suit your area the best. We will describe all common species in detail.

Types of Hickory trees

The hickory family is divided into two major groups: true hickories and pecan hickories. Talking about true hickory trees, they include the common types that we have talked about like shagbark, pignut, mockernut and shellbark.

Out of pecan trees, the best-known species is pecan. Pecan is also the only hickory that produces tasty nuts that have commercial value. Bitternut is also pecan hickory, but you cannot eat the nuts.

Pecan and True Hickory: Differences

All hickories look very similar, they resemble each other in shape and size. You can distinguish a pecan and true hickory by looking at the leaf structure.

True hickories have five to nine leaflets in the leaves while pecan hickories can have nine to seventeen leaflets. You can also analyse the shape and size of nuts to distinguish between the hickories.

All hickory nuts are surrounded by a woody shell and they split easily. Pecan’s shells are oblong in shape while most true hickories have round nuts. Not all nuts are edible though, some can be very bitter.

Shagbark Hickory Trees                

This species is indigenous to North America and is found in the eastern US zones (4 to 8). They grow in full to partial sun are related to the Pecan family. They are known to have a height of 130 feet, but they usually grow up to half this height.

Just like all hickory trees, shagbark hickories are slow growers, and the fruit takes years to ripe. So, you will have to put some external force if you wish to cultivate it yourself otherwise it will easily take another 25 years to enjoy any benefit from this ornamental tree.

Some nurseries sell shagbark hickory employ grafting techniques to produce better specimens. Such cultivators yield a harvest in two to three years. An example of this cultivator is ‘Grainger’. Please note that hickories have a long taproot which makes it difficult to transplant, so choose a nursery that has a sensible guarantee policy.

Shagbark hickory has a unique, smoke-gray bark that enhances the aesthetics. The edges of the bark curl away from the trunk making the tree look rugged. Therefore, the name ‘shagbark’. It is not cultivated primarily for the tasty nuts it bears, there are many other features that make it extremely useful. They provide excellent fall foliage color. The golden color in autumn is so rich and beautiful, that you will be forced to stop and stare.

Shagbark hickory wood is tough, flexible, and shock-resistant and is used to make tools and equipment. The wood is also excellent firewood. The reason why the hickory tree is so popular among the millions of species of tree is that they support wildlife well. Birds enjoy eating shagbark hickory nuts.

Can You Grow Shagbark Hickory?

Yes, you can. They thrive in full sun and well-drained soil. The ideal location to plant it is a big park-like area where the large size and leaf litter won’t be a problem. Plant them in spring and ensure that the root collar rests just below ground level. Suppress all the weed growth within a yard through mulching and water after installation.

A wood-rotting fungus called canker can kill the tree. You should regularly water the tree and scrape any discoloured wood from the bark. Talking about insects, aphids and hickory bark beetle attack the tree. To eradicate these insects, you can use pesticides and insecticides.

Shellbark Hickory

Belonging to the walnut family, shellbark hickory is a low-growing tree that can live up to hundreds of years. They can grow up to 50 to 80 feet tall. The leaves have seven to nine leaflets and are found in clusters. The bark is gray and has a shabby appearance. The nuts of shellbark hickory are the largest and oval-shaped. They have five to six sections and are enclosed in a husk.

Shellbark hickories grow the best in moist soil. They cannot tolerate alkaline soil. They are like shagbark hickory in terms of physical appearance and require a large area to grow. Shellbark wood is also as durable as shagbark wood. However, shellbark wood is slightly lower in strength.

Pignut Hickory

You will not find too many pignut hickories in the world. They are found in Canada and eastern parts of the US but are not abundant in other regions. They also grow up to 50 to 60 feet tall and have gray-colored bark.

The leaves have clusters of five to seven leaflets. The leaflet that is at the end is the largest. You can recognize pignut hickory from its bitternut. They are pear-shaped with four ridges on the husk.

Pignut hickory can easily tolerate salty conditions. They thrive in a variety of soils but require well-drained soil to survive. Pignut hickory wood was used widely in colonial times when we had wheels of wagons and brooms made out of the wood. The wood is also used to make tool handles.

Mockernut Hickory

Contrary to the pignut hickory, this species of hickory is the most abundant out of them all. It also belongs to the walnut family. You will find them in the eastern part of the United States. Mockernut hickories can live for as long as 500 years.

Mockernut hickory wood is flexible, strong, and hard. Let’s talk about an interesting etymology – the name mockernut is derived from a Latin word tomentum which means “covered with short, dense hair”. The reason for this is the underside of mockernut leaves have short hanging hair. This will help you identify them.

The leaves grow in an alternate fashion and are found in clusters. They have seven to nine leaflets with hanging hair on the underside. The leaf at the end is the largest. The nut is like other hickories and has four sections. Mockernut hickories prefer soil that is slightly acidic, they do not tolerate salty soil.

Mockernut wood is used in a variety of ways. It is used to make handles of the tools that require shock resistance. It is also used to make athletic tools, agriculture equipment, gym apparatus, pumps, furniture, shafts and more. Mockernut hickory is slightly low in quality.

Bitternut Hickory

Also known as swamp hickory, bitternut trees are smaller hickories and can grow up to 35 feet. The leaves are made up of seven to eleven leaflets with a large apical leaflet.

The flowers are more of small catkins. As the name suggests, the nut obtained from this tree is bitter. The shell of the nut is bony and hard. You can identify bitternut hickory easily from the yellow-coloured winter buds.

Bitternut hickories can also tolerate a variety of soils, but they prefer acidic soil. They do not tolerate salty soil. Bitternut hickory wood is also hard and durable. It is found in furniture, ladders, and tool handles. It is used to smoke meat also.

Some other hickories that are not very common but also form a part of the family are –

Scrub Hickory: Native to the southern US, they are small hickories that grow only up to 25 meters. You can identify them from the coarse leaflets. They have tasty edible nuts.

Red Hickory: This hickory tree is rare and can be found in North America. The leaves have five to nine leaflets. The nuts are sometimes present in clusters of two or three.

Black Hickory: Unfortunately, Black hickory is an endangered hickory species found in North America. They are called black hickories because the leaves are rusty brown. They have sweet nuts.

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