golden fall color on hickory tree

Hickory wood for smoking meat

Carya ovata is the shagbark hickory. It is one of the most useful trees in the forest and also one of the most beautiful. The autumn color is just starting to show here in west Kentucky and soon the glorious deep gold will be sprinkled among the yellows, oranges and reds of the other forest trees. This tree is well-known in our area. The shaggy strips of bark on the mature trees make it easily recognizable and it is probably one of the first trees a child can name. We love our hickories here in the south. It is the preferred wood for just about any barbecue pit boss who is worth his salt. The hickory wood produces a sweet smoke that flavors all cuts of meat in a delectable manner. Other regions of the country may cook with mesquite or apple wood, but hickory is king in the south. We have many local restaurants with pits out back that smoke pork shoulders, turkeys, chickens, ribs and hams every day and sometimes our town smells so good, you just have to stop and get a pound or two of whatever just came off the pit. It is also an economical wood to burn for winter heating. Those who heat with wood stoves (and there are a number in my area) know that only black locust wood will produce a higher BTU than hickory.

hickory nuts on tree

Growing hickory trees

These trees favor well-drained acid soil with plenty of moisture. They are often seen in our forested woodlands along with various oak species because they favor similar growing conditions. While they do prefer ample moisture, the shagbark hickory does not like boggy conditions. However, it does have a cousin, the water hickory, Carya aquatica, that likes the swamps and constantly wet soil. The shagbark is hardy in USDA zones 4-8, average height is between sixty and eighty feet at maturity, however that could take many decades to reach. Hickories make excellent shade trees if you have the room and they are situated far enough from walkways and driveways to keep the falling nuts from being a problem. They are hard enough and big enough to cause damage to autos left parked underneath and the nuts and outer husks can make for an unsightly walkway if planted near an entrance. Yes, there are two parts to a hickory nut. There is a four sectioned outer husk and the inner nut where the kernel is, so there is quite a bit of material that falls from the tree and these nuts and husks can dull a lawnmower blade in a hurry, so plant with that in mind. Wherever you plant one, make sure that it is in a good spot since hickories have a long taproot and can live for hundreds of years. Wild grown trees start bearing in ten to fifteen years while grafted nursery trees are productive in as little as three years. If you purchase nursery grown trees, plant in the spring and make sure they are well-supplied with moisture for their first year. Wild-grown trees are difficult to transplant because of their long taproot, so smaller seedlings are the best choice in that situation.

hickory nuts

The hickory was important to the Native Peoples

The Native Peoples used the hickory in many ways and in fact, our name for the tree comes from their languages. It was called pockerchicory by the Algonquian and pocohicora by the Powhatan peoples, so a shortened version was adopted by English speakers. The ancients boiled the nuts and produced an oil that they used for everything from baking and cooking to treating illness and waterproofing outer garments. The strong and supple wood was fashioned into bows, snowshoe frames and baskets. The nut meats were added to soups and stews and pounded into pemmican along with meats and fruits. The bark was boiled and produced a slightly sweet syrup that was used to flavor everything from roasted meats and breads to drinks. Hickory bark produces yellow, green and olive natural dye and the ashes are excellent in the production of lye soap. Medicinally, the tea was used for a wide range of ailments ranging from pain relievers, cold remedies and laxatives. They also mixed the sap with bear grease to produce a prehistoric insect repellent. The nuts and wood were apparently excellent trade goods as well, since evidence of hickory products have been discovered in a number of ancient settlements well outside the growing range of this tree. Modern uses for hickory wood are tool handles, paneling, flooring, furniture and sporting equipment. The wood is tough and flexible, so withstands quite a bit of punishment.

shaggy hickory bark with hand to show size

Hickories in the pollinator and wildlife garden

Hickories are also an excellent addition to a pollinator and wildlife garden. Small mammals, deer, elk and some birds enjoy the calorie rich, tasty nuts and the tree is host to several of our most fragile moths, including the Luna, Regal and Walnut Sphinx, plus the shaggy bark peels away from the trunks of the tree far enough to shelter bats. Black bears also love the oil-rich nuts which helps them store the fat needed in late fall for their winter hibernation. The Carya genus is also host to over two hundred other butterflies and moths, so it is a significant addition to any landscape where preserving the ecosystem is part of the plan. Many communities have strict rules for planting non-native trees and shrubs, so instead of longing for an alien and possibly invasive tree, the hickory is a good choice for the environment and your HOA. The Carya ovata, along with several cousins, is native to the Southeast U.S., however there are eighteen species world-wide, so chances are, there's one right for your property.