Hickory Nuts: Identification and Types (With Pictures)

Hickory nuts, which come from the hickory tree genus Carya, are a tasty and mostly edible type of nut that has a sweet, nutty flavor similar to pecans. Protected by a hard shell and woody husk, the juiciest hickory nuts come from the pecan tree and kingnut hickory, while the bitternut hickory and pignut hickory produce nuts that are bitter and inedible. This article delves into the various types of hickory nuts, providing detailed descriptions and pictures of both the nuts and the trees they come from to help readers identify the best ones to find where hickory trees grow.

About Hickory Nuts

Hickory nuts, also referred to as pecans, are a type of drupe that resemble walnuts and are part of the Hickory genus. Encased in a tough outer shell, the inner seed or fruit splits open when ripe.

These nuts come from the hickory tree, a deciduous tree that is indigenous to North America. Hickory nuts are shielded by a thin, hard shell and are usually brown in color. Known for their rich, buttery flavor, they are frequently used in cooking and baking. The shagbark hickory is the most commonly harvested hickory nut species in North America, named for its shaggy bark. The pignut and pecan hickory are other prevalent species. Hickory nuts are high in protein, as well as vitamins and minerals like magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc.

Different species of hickory trees have unique characteristics that distinguish their nuts. Shagbark hickory nuts, which are red or shellbark hickories, are large, measuring between 1.2″ and 2.5″ (3 – 6.5 cm) in diameter. Pecan and pignut hickory nuts, on the other hand, are more oval or pear-shaped than other hickory nut varieties.

The way the hard shell of the hickory nut splits into four sections is another distinguishing feature. When harvesting them, it is recommended to look for nuts with an intact shell or just a slight crack. It takes around 25 to 30 years for hickory trees to begin producing nuts.

Are Hickory Nuts Edible?

Hickory nuts are indeed edible and are renowned for their rich, buttery taste, making them a popular ingredient in cooking and baking. These nuts have a hard, thin shell that must be cracked open to access the nutmeat inside. While some individuals enjoy consuming hickory nuts raw, others prefer to roast or toast them to enhance their flavor. Because hickory nut shells are exceptionally hard, cracking them open can be challenging. The most effective approach is to use a nutcracker or hammer to crack the shells open. Once the nutmeat is visible, it can be easily extracted and savored.

Hickory Nut Shell

It is true that hickory nuts are edible and are highly regarded for their rich and buttery flavor, making them a popular ingredient in cooking and baking. The nuts have a tough and thin shell that must be cracked open to reveal the delicious nutmeat inside.

Some individuals prefer to consume hickory nuts raw, while others prefer to roast or toast them to intensify their flavor. Due to the hardness of hickory nut shells, cracking them open can be a challenging task. Using a nutcracker or hammer is the most efficient way to break them open. After the nutmeat is visible, it can be effortlessly extracted and relished.

What To Do With Hickory Nuts

Hickory nuts can be used in cooking as a substitute for pecans or walnuts, but they are also delicious when eaten fresh and crunchy right off the tree. Additionally, you can separate the nuts and shells to create hickory nut oil or hickory nut syrup.

To create hickory nut oil, boil the nuts in water for 30 minutes, and a layer of oil will form on top of the nuts. You can use this oil as a baste for roasts, or scrape off the oil layer and use it as nut butter. For hickory nut syrup, boil the nuts in water with sugar.

If you’re wondering what to do with the tough hickory shells, don’t throw them away just yet. Roast them in the fireplace to release a fragrant hickory scent, or add them to the grill for a Southern twist on cooked meats. Hickory nuts can also be roasted in the oven on low heat or blended into smoothies.

When Do Hickory Nuts Fall?

Hickory nuts on the tree ripen and drop to the ground during periods of strong winds or autumn storms, and they can also be shaken from the tree. However, it is important to exercise caution, as a deluge of large, hard nuts may fall and cause injury. Hickory trees typically produce abundant nut crops every three years.

Hickory Nut vs. Walnut

Hickory nuts and walnuts share a similar flavor profile, as they both belong to the Juglandaceae family. However, the hardness of the outer husk of a hickory nut is distinct from that of a walnut. Additionally, while walnuts have a more wrinkled appearance, hickory nuts have smooth shells.

One can also differentiate between hickory and walnut trees by examining their bark. Hickory tree bark frequently peels off, giving the tree a scruffy appearance. In contrast, walnut tree bark is tougher and starts off smooth, becoming rougher as the tree matures.

How to Identify Hickory Nuts

There are multiple ways to identify hickory nuts. One of the most apparent is their appearance. Hickory nuts have a hard, thin shell with a rough, ridged texture and are usually brown in color. They are enclosed in a green, hairy husk that opens up when the nut is ripe.

Another way to distinguish hickory nuts is by their size and shape. They are typically larger and more oblong than most other nuts, including pecans, which are in the same family. Additionally, hickory tree leaves are alternate and compound, featuring 5 to 17 lance-shaped leaflets with a serrated edge.

If you are still uncertain whether a nut is a hickory nut, you can try cracking it open. The nutmeat inside should be light brown in color and have a rich, buttery flavor.

Types Of Hickory Nuts (with Pictures) – Identification Guide

Let’s examine hickory nuts in greater depth, which are often known as hickory nuts.

Shellbark Hickory Nut / Kingnut Hickory Nut (Carya laciniosa)

The shellbark hickory, also referred to as shagbark hickory, is a deciduous tree that is native to North America. It is recognized for its distinctive bark that peels away from the trunk in long, vertical strips, resembling shaggy hair.

The nuts of the shellbark hickory are large and oblong with a tough, thin shell that is challenging to crack open. They are surrounded by a green, hairy husk that splits open when the nut is mature. Shellbark hickory nuts are highly valued for their rich, buttery taste and are frequently used in cooking and baking. The tree’s wood is also highly prized due to its durability, strength, and hardness.

To identify a shellbark hickory tree, search for its long and thin vertical scales peeling away from the bark. The leaves of the shellbark hickory are often seven-leafleted.

Shagbark Hickory Nut (Carya ovata)

Shagbark hickory nuts are large and hard ovals that can range in size from 1.2 to 2 inches (3 to 5 cm), with immature nuts on the left and mature nuts on the right in the images. The nuts of the shagbark hickory tree are often found growing in pairs, and they have a dark brown to black color with a tendency to split easily. The shagbark hickory nuts are highly regarded for their delicious taste, and they should be harvested once they have fallen from the tree.

The leaf form of shagbark hickory trees is another characteristic that can be used to identify them. They usually feature five-leaflet pinnate leaves with pointed tips. Shagbark hickory trees are recognized for their unkempt appearance due to their dense, scaly bark that peels off easily.

Shagbark Hickory tree (Carya ovata) bark

Southern Shagbark Hickory Nut (Carya carolinae septentrionalis)

Southern shagbark hickory nuts are characterized by their egg-shaped appearance, which can be up to 2 inches (5 cm) long and 0.8 inches (2 cm) wide. These nuts are light to dark brown in color and split effortlessly after they have fallen from the tree.

The fruit is known for its delectably sweet flavor, which is comparable to that of Carya ovata and Carya laciniosa. Southern shagbark hickory nuts are generally easy to open, making them a popular choice among nut enthusiasts.

If you come across hickory nuts on the ground that are split into four pointed pieces, there is a good chance that they belong to the southern shagbark variety. The nut’s shell can be opened to reveal a light-brown, sweet flesh.

Southern Shagbark Hickory Tree Nut Identification: The shaggy bark of the southern shagbark hickory peels high up on the tree in long strips.

Northern Shagbark Hickory Nut (Carya ovata var. ovata)

The northern shagbark hickory nut has a spherical shape with a somewhat flattened top and a smooth surface.

It is egg-shaped and measures 1.5″ (4 cm) in length and 0.6″ (1.6 cm) in width. The nut’s thin, tan shell encases a delicious and edible nutmeat. The northern shagbark hickory tree can be identified by its pinnate leaves, which typically have five serrated leaflets in addition to the oval, tan-colored nuts.

To identify a northern shagbark hickory tree, look for the peeling bark, which comes off in thin strips.

Pignut or Black Hickory Nut (Carya glabra)

Pignut hickory nuts have a pear-shaped appearance with a green husk, with immature and ripe nuts shown in the left and right pictures, respectively. These nuts are oval-shaped, measuring 1″ (2.5 cm) in length and 0.75″ (2 cm) in width. When the nut is cracked open, four chambers hold a bitter kernel that is not tasty for human consumption, although it is not poisonous. Therefore, it is not recommended to eat the meat since it is extremely bitter.

Wildlife, such as squirrels, rabbits, foxes, bears, and small mammals, are fond of pignut hickory nuts. Unlike other types of hickory nuts, pignut hickory nuts are not notable for their ability to split on their own.

To identify a pignut hickory tree, look for the 12-inch (30 cm) compound leaves containing five to seven leaflets, which are lance-shaped, up to 5″ (12 cm) long and 2″ (5 cm) broad, and have finely serrated margins.

Mockernut Hickory Nut (Carya tomentosa)

The mockernut hickory nut, scientifically known as Carya tomentosa, has an oval shape resembling a drupe with a white color. These nuts range from 1.5″ to 3″ (3.8 to 7.5 cm) in diameter, and a small edible nut is surrounded by a thick, difficult-to-remove husk. When mature, the hickory nut has four ridge lines. Other names for the Carya tomentosa are white heart hickory, referring to the tree’s wood, and squarenut, referring to the nut’s shape.

The name “mockernut” comes from the fact that the kernel inside is tiny and barely worth eating, making it challenging to open.

Mockernut Hickory Tree Nut Identification: The bark of a mockernut hickory tree is thin, dark gray and furrows as it ages, making it easy to recognize. The compound hickory leaves have five to seven ovate leaflets that are 6″ (15 cm) long.

Bitternut Hickory Nut (Carya cordiformis)

The bitternut hickory tree produces nuts with a bitter taste, making them inedible. The immature and mature nuts have a round shape with four ribs when they reach maturity.

The nuts are enclosed in a green husk that turns dark brown and splits open as it dries. The bitter nuts are small, measuring 0.75 to 1.25 inches (2 to 3 cm) in length.

The bitternut hickory tree is identified by its large leaves with seven to eleven leaflets, hard and round nuts, and gray bark that forms ridges as it ages.

Red Hickory Nut (Carya ovalis)

The nut from the red hickory tree is a round nut with a dark husk that encloses a tan-colored nut inside. The red hickory nut has a creamy white color and a sweet flavor to its meat, although it can be a bit bitter at times. The size of a red hickory nut ranges from 1″ to 1.5″ (2.5 – 3.8 cm).

Red Hickory Tree Nut Identification: The gray, fissured bark of a red hickory tree, pinnately compound leaves with five to nine leaflets, and small rounded black nuts growing in clusters of two or three are all characteristics that distinguish it.

Sand Hickory Nut (Carya pallida)

The sand hickory tree’s nut is the tiniest of the hickory nuts. A pointed top and flattened bottom characterize the oval sand hickory nut. A little tan-colored nut, between 0.5″ and 1.5″ (1.3 – 3.8 cm) long, is covered by a light brown thin husk.

The kernel of sand hickory nuts is delicious. The flattened, oval form and thin shell of sand hickory nuts are two characteristics that set them apart. Brown flesh with a sweet flavor is covered in a hard shell. Pecan substitutes include sand hickory nuts.

Sand Hickory Tree Nut Identification: The relatively smooth bark, shallow furrows, small lanceolate leaves, and tiny hickory nuts distinguish a sand hickory tree.

Scrub Hickory Nut (Carya floridana)

The scrub hickory nut, belonging to the Carya floridana family, is a spherical, rounded nut that grows in clusters of three. It is a sweet, delicious, and edible hickory nut that is native to Florida. The nut is approximately 1.2″ to 1.6″ (3 to 4 cm) long and 0.8″ to 1″ (2 to 2.5 cm) in diameter.

The scrub hickory is a multi-stemmed shrub-like tree that can grow up to 10-16 feet (3-5 meters) tall. As a single trunk tree, it may reach up to 80 feet (25 meters) in height. The scrub hickory tree is characterized by long 12″ (30 cm) leaves with three to seven lance-shaped leaflets.

Nutmeg Hickory Nut (Carya myristiciformis)

The nutmeg hickory tree bears oval nuts with silvery speckles that turn brown when they mature. Each nutmeg hickory nut has a thin husk that forms four distinct ridges, measuring roughly 1″ (2.5 cm) long. The nut contains a sweet kernel surrounded by a thick brown hickory nutshell.

The nutmeg hickory nut gets its name from its resemblance to the aromatic spice nutmeg, but it is not related to it.

Identifying a nutmeg hickory tree involves looking for large, pinnately compound leaves measuring up to 14 inches (35 cm) long. Each leaflet has serrated margins and contains five to nine leaflets. The nut-bearing tree has scaly reddish-brown bark.

Pecan (Carya illinoinensis)

The pecan nut is one of the most well-known types of hickory nuts, with an immature and mature form. The pecan nut is oval to oblong in shape, with a greenish-gold husk, about 1 inch (2.5 cm) long and broad, and turns coppery brown when it matures.

Pecans are known for their sweet, buttery flavor, and the edible portion of the nut is oblong and cylindrical with dark brown color and ridges that run the length of the nut. Pecan nuts are usually found in four-nut clusters, with the fruit split into two halves inside the nutshell. They are popular as a snack and also used in baked goods in the southern states of the US.

Pecan Tree Identification: Pecan nut trees can grow up to 100 feet (30 meters) tall and have compound leaves with pointed leaflets. The fern-like leaves have nine to seventeen leaflets and can grow up to 20 inches (50 cm) long.

Harvesting Hickory Nuts

During autumn in areas with woodlands and deciduous forests where hickory trees are abundant, it is common to collect hickory nuts. Although all hickory species produce nuts each year, they only do so every three years.

During bumper years, hickory nuts can be found scattered on the forest floor.

After gathering a significant amount, the nuts should be left to dry in a warm area. Once dried, they can be stored for up to a month in a cool location. To preserve the nuts for longer periods of time, the flesh should be removed from the shells before storing them in the freezer for several months.

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