Article and photos by Katherine Wagner-Reiss 

Carya ovata shaggy bark, a roosting place for bats and butterflies.

 

Carya ovata (shagbark hickory) is a large deciduous tree that is easy to identify all year round because of its eye-catching shaggy mature bark. In the fall, shagbark hickory is also notable for its warm golden-brown leaves and sizable edible nuts. It is one of the five hickory species native to Pennsylvania. 

The genus name Carya is the Greek name for walnut, and in Greek mythology Laconian princess Carya had a love affair with the god Dionysus; after her death, he memorialized her by changing her into a fruitful walnut tree.  

The specific epithet ovata means egg-shaped, referring to the nut, and the common name hickory was adapted from the Virginia Algonquian word pawcohiccora, referring to a staple food of pounded hickory nuts and water. From 1773–1777 William Bartram, a foremost Philadelphian naturalist, travelled the east coast south of Pennsylvania and described seeing one hundred bushels of shagbark hickory nuts stored at just a single Native American family home. The hickory wood itself was valued as a fuel and for bow-making.

 Here are some fun hickory-related experiences to enjoy this autumn: 

  • Find some shagbark hickories and appreciate the value of shaggy bark as a home or hiding place for wildlife: butterflies, caterpillars, and bats all benefit from the protection provided by the curling bark. 
  • Train your mind’s eye to identify the distinctive color of fall shagbark hickory leaves; unlike the maples, which turn lemon yellow, these leaves are a rich golden mustard-brown yellow. Once you become attuned to this color, you will be able to suspect a hickory, even from afar.  
  • Look for the edible nuts! Wildlife—including squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, black bears, fox, mallards, wood ducks, bobwhites, and wild turkeys—may beat you to them. 
  • Try grilling with hickory charcoal.
  • If you have a special child in your life, or if you’d just like a bit of coloring fun yourself, check out these free online coloring pages of shagbark hickory and other trees. If you don’t want to waste paper, they can be colored directly online! 
 
Carya ovata oval nuts emerging from dehiscent oval husks. Carya ovata oval nuts emerging from dehiscent oval husks.
Carya ovata dark mustard-colored autumn leaves.
 Dark mustard-colored autumn leaves of Carya ovata
 
Carya ovata easily found downhill from the Two Lines stainless steel sculpture (arrowed).

 

And some hickory trivia...

  • Andrew Jackson was named Old Hickory because he was as tough as their wood.
  • Lancaster, PA was initially called Hickory Town before all the hickories were cut down.  
  • Carya ovata is so closely related to the pecan, Carya illinoinensis, that the two trees can hybridize naturally, and their hybrid nuts are called hicans! 

When you visit Morris Arboretum, you can see ten labeled shagbark hickories, some of which were original to the Morris estate and accessioned in 1932. (They can live and bear fruit for 300 years.) Don’t be surprised if some of the younger trees have smooth bark—the shagginess develops later. Find their locations at the Arboretum's Collection Connection.  

 

Katherine has her Certificate in Botany from the New York Botanical Garden and is a botanical tour guide and free-lance writer. You can contact her with comments or requests for photos at botanicaltours.weebly.com