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Shagbark Hickory; The perfect name for a shaggy tree

October 2022

by Steve Carroll, Contributing Columnist

You could hardly find a better-named tree than shagbark hickory, though paper birch, striped maple and longleaf pine are in the running. The outer bark of a mature shagbark peels away in long, rough plates that curl up at the ends, giving the tree its distinctive shaggy look.

The characteristic bark that gives shagbark hickory its common name. PHOTO BY STILLRIVERSIDE VIA FLICKR

A much-shared family story centers on a shagbark hickory in our former Missouri backyard. We set up an overhead dog run from our deck to this tree at the edge of our yard, and Darby, our fox terrier, spent many a happy morning in its shade.

But all too often, we’d hear the barking that told us she had once again circled the tree and caught her lead under the tree’s rough bark.

Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), a member of the walnut family, is one of about 10 hickories in our area. Shagbark grows naturally from southwestern Maine to southeastern Minnesota, south to eastern Texas and northern Georgia, with isolated populations in Mexico (zones 4-8). In our region, it’s more common inland than along the coast.


This is a large tree, reaching 60 to 80 feet or more, with a canopy 50 to 70 feet across. It co-occurs with many other mid-Atlantic hardwoods, particularly oaks, but it is rarely the most common species in a forest.

It does best in moist, well-drained soil in sunny or partly sunny sites, but also manages in dry sites. Shagbark is relatively disease-free and tolerates urban settings, but it’s messy, dropping bark, leaves, twigs and nuts. Best not to park your car under one.

This tree is attractive year-round. In the spring, the expanding green leaves rise above pink pastel bud scales, resembling a large flower. In the fall, leaves turn yellow to golden brown. In winter, the bark stands out from that of surrounding trees.

Hickory’s leaves are described as alternate and compound: alternate, since they grow singly, or one per node (the most common leaf arrangement among our trees); and compound, meaning each leaf is comprised of multiple leaflets. Shagbark typically has five finely toothed leaflets, the terminal leaflet being the largest.

Its small flowers open in the spring. Male flowers grow in hanging clusters called catkins; female flowers are fewer and less conspicuous. Hickory is wind pollinated, and if fertilization is successful, female flowers develop into the familiar nuts that characterize hickories.


These nuts are edible straight from the husk, or they can be made into porridge or flour and baked into cakes and muffins. Hickory syrup, made by boiling the bark, seems to be making a comeback. Native Americans made a sweet, white milk from hickory nuts.

Shagbark’s dramatic, unfolding leaves in spring PHOTO COURTESY

Many butterfly and moth caterpillars feed on the leaves, and squirrels, chipmunks, foxes, black bears, wood ducks, bobwhite, turkeys and other mammals and birds feast on the nuts. Brown creepers will even build their nests under the bark plates.

Shagbark hickory makes a beautiful specimen or shade tree, but it’s most valuable economically for its hard, dense wood used for tool handles, furniture, flooring and more. Hickory is one of our densest woods and burns well in wood stoves.

And for those who love barbecue, no picnic spread is complete without an assortment of hickory-smoked meats.

Steve Carroll is a botanist and ecologist who speaks and writes about trees, gardening and the world of plants. He is the co-author of “Ecology for Gardeners,” published by Timber Press.