Old Hickory

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Old Hickory

Categories: Blog, Garden Guru

Hickory Nuts are one of the tastiest of the season’s wild bounty. Native Americans crushed and boiled them to extract their nutritious fat and oils for use as cooking oil or to add to other foods.

Here I placed some Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) nuts on the planting plan for the Living off the Land portion of the new Heartland Harvest Garden. Hickories are a prime example of a native edible. Shagbark Hickory nuts are delicious but it’s not easy to crack and extract the nutmeat. It is worth the effort as hickory nutmeat is great raw or in hickory nut pie and other baked goods!

Horticulturist Richard Heter stands next to one of Powell Gardens’ old Shagbark Hickories. This tree is only 3 feet in diameter but 100 feet tall (see the series of images below looking up to the crown of this tree). It grows in the core of Powell Gardens up the creek bed behind the Marjorie Powell Allen Chapel. Powell Gardens has several presettlement hickories–the easiest one to see is in the road ellipse in front of the Visitor Center. The bark of local trees is not as shaggy as typical; I will have to find out why.

Hickories are also valued for their strong, shock-resistant lumber and of course it is a favorite for smoking food: hickory smoked flavor is legendary. Hickories are never seen in nurseries and rarely planted by gardeners. A seedling tree can grow a 5 foot tap root–with little above ground growth. With proper root pruning they can be grown in special containers or root bags for transplanting. This strong root growth contributes to the drought tolerance and longevity of the tree.

See below for a quote from my favorite tree book: Native Trees for North American Landscapes by Guy Sternberg. (A great gift for anyone with interest in trees and available at Powell Gardens’ Gift Shop).

This is the great tree whose name was adopted by Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson, the hickory-tough, battle hardened, seventh president of the United States. He even planted a few shagbarks at the Hermitage, his home near Nashville, TN (they are still there today!). It is unfortunate that few others have followed his example, as hickories are notoriously slow to mature and challenging to transplant, and modern folks want “easy” trees. Many of our most magnificent specimens in wooded neighborhoods are remnants of presettlement vegetation, and as they begin to die out, no one is replacing them. Please plant a hickory — any hickory — for posterity! My sentiments exactly.

Shellbark Hickory (Carya laciniosa) has the largest nuts of any but they are still hard to crack. These are often called Kingnut or Missouri Mammoth Hickories. We have several of these trees in our Heartland Harvest Garden nursery. They will be worth the wait and I know future generations will be glad we planted them. They usually grow wild in deep soils on flood terraces in our region.
These are Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) nuts. These nuts are so hard to crack that they make a mockery of anyone who tries. The tree is a magnificent and beautiful plant, especially in fall when cloaked in golden foliar attire.
Red Hickory (Carya ovalis) has reddish tinted brown nuts. This tree often grows on very dry ridges in our region. Botanists have trouble differentiating it from the Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra) whose nuts were at least good for pig fodder.
The toughest of our local hickories is the Black Hickory (Carya texana). This tree grows really slowly and often is just a small tree growing on some or our poorest, driest soils. The trunks of larger trees are charcoal black.
I couldn’t find any nuts of our most well known hickory: PECAN (Carya illinoinensis)! This image is looking up into trees in our nursery. Pecan nut husks remain up in the tree like black “flowers.” The nuts have fallen and are immediately devoured by a whole host of creatures from people to ‘possoms, Blue Jays and crows. Pecans are native to floodplains in the immediate area and several selections that will thrive in our area and produce larger-sized, easier-to-crack nuts than the typical wild trees can now be purchased from mailorder nurseries. These “northern” pecans have rich flavor, superior to the paper shell “southern” varieties commercially grown outside the pecan’s native range, which is from Illinois and Missouri southward into Texas.
Some of our pecans in our old nursery are getting quite large. We do plan to transplant some of them, hiring Colonial Nurseries’ largest tree spade. These were twice transplanted in youth so should make the transfer. Seedling and sapling pecans are true to their hickory relatives and grow a long deep taproot that makes them difficult to transplant — the earlier transplantings helped us prune their roots for future moving. Look for these trees in the future pecan orchard of the Heartland Harvest Garden. They are already bearing nuts.