Young Shagbark Hickory Tree

2018 January 21

The shagbark hickory, Carya ovata, is common in the southern part of Michigan, but normally they don’t grow up here in the UP. So, while the ones we planted on the back part of our property may not be the only ones in Houghton County, they are certainly the only ones that Sandy and I are aware of. Here is one, as of October 9, 2016. For scale, Sam standing next to it was almost exactly five feet tall at the time.


Sam is a bit younger than these trees. We started with some hickory nuts that were collected from Sandy’s parents place back sometime around 2000 (give or take a year or two), and that we brought up here to plant. As it turns out, the nuts took a couple of years to sprout, but did eventually come up and start growing. About a year after the nuts sprouted, we bought some 2-year-old seedlings and planted them, too. So, as of the time these pictures were taken, the trees were just about 14 years old.

For the first several years, they grew agonizingly slowly. I think it was a combination of the short growing season, getting mashed flat by the snow every year, and generally poor nutrient levels in the soil (I did give them some fertilizer when they were first planted, but that might not have been enough). But eventually, they finally got tall enough that they were not completely covered by snow, and as of about five years ago the abruptly started doing better (and the dose of horse manure we spread around their bases right about that time probably didn’t hurt, either).

In the early years, it was a great help in keeping track of them that their leaves are quite distinctive. They have compound leaves well over a foot long, with the largest of the (usually five) leaflets being close to the size of my hand.




Once they get big, hickory trees are pretty impressive. They can grow well over 100 feet tall if you have the time to wait for them. The wood is particularly good for things like tool handles, because it is very dense and tough. But the main reason that we wanted them is that the nuts they produce are delicious. Sandy’s parents used to use theirs to make pie (similar to pecan pie[1]). The downside of the nuts is that they have extremely hard shells, and they are hard to break with a conventional hand-held nutcracker. When I was a kid, we used to use a small bench vise to crack them, and Sandy’s father had a really heavy lever-action nutcracker that could handle them pretty well.

Now, the question is just how long is it going to be before they start producing nuts? Stark Brothers Nurseries says 8-10 years after planting, but somehow I don’t think that applies to our climate. I kind of suspect it will be closer to 16-20 years, given how slow trees grow up here. Maybe even 30 years, in which case we may not see any nuts for another 15 years or so. And then, it will be a race to collect them before the squirrels do.

At any rate, they are growing well enough that even though we are a few hundred miles north of their normal range, I don’t see any reason to expect that they couldn’t get established here. I think they only reason they aren’t native to the area is that they colonize new areas fairly slowly[2], and probably just haven’t had time to move into the Upper Peninsula in the mere 10,000 years or so since the glaciers finally melted.

[1] It turns out that this is a perfectly appropriate use of hickory nuts, since I see that pecans actually are closely related to hickories (they are in the same genus, and evidently can be hybridized!)

[2] Like a lot of other nut trees, hickories have their seeds mainly spread by squirrels. It seems that when squirrels collect nuts, they bury them in numerous little caches to be dug up over the winter. And between the squirrels hiding more than they need, or being eaten themselves by a predator before they can retrieve them, or even just being absent minded (they are squirrels, after all), a significant number of the nuts never get dug back up and eventually sprout. While this is a good way for the nuts to be taken a ways from the tree and properly planted, the squirrels don’t generally haul the nuts all that far, and so the tree’s seeds don’t get spread willy-nilly all over the landscape the same way that, say, winged maple seeds do.

One Response
  1. Carole permalink
    January 21, 2018

    Interesting. We like to smoke and barbecue with hickory sticks. I’ve read that Native Americans spread some varieties of hickory to Florida and are a sign of their residence.

    This from a website on hickories: In Indiana, Indian people established a kitchen in the present-day Charlestown State Park for processing nuts so that they could be stored for winter use. The Indians collected hickory nuts, used large slabs of rock to crush them and then made fires to boil them and extract fatty oils.

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