Plant Guide > Trees > Hickories > Shagbark Hickory or Little Shellbark Hickory Tree

Shagbark Hickory or Little Shellbark Hickory Tree

Shagbark Hickory or Little Shellbark Hickory TreeShagbark Hickory, Little Shellbark Hickory (Hicoria ovata, Britt.)-A ruggedly picturesque, stately tree, 75 to 120 feet high, with long tap root, straight trunk and angular, short branches, forming an irregular, oblong head. Bark light grey, shedding in thin, vertical strips, or plates. Branches smooth, twigs shining, grey. Wood brown, close grained, tough, hard, elastic, heavy. Buds terminal ones, large, broadly ovate, with dark, narrow-pointed pair of outer scales persisting through the winter; inner scales silky, elongating to 5 to 6 inches and curving back in spring; lateral buds small, globular. Leaves alternate, deciduous, 12 to 20 inches long, compound, of 5 (rarely 7) leaflets, all sessile but terminal one, smooth, leathery; smallest leaflets at base; all serrate, broadly obovate, abruptly acuminate, dark yellow-green above, paler beneath, becoming brownish yellow in autumn; petioles stout, smooth, swollen at base, and grooved. Flowers, May, with leaves; monoecious, greenish; staminate in slender, hairy, flexible catkins 4 to 6 inches long, in threes from common stem, at base of new shoots; pistillate single or few in terminal cluster, hairy, greenish with spreading, divided stigmas. Fruits solitary or paired; husk smooth, leathery, dividing to base into 4 valves, 1/2 inch thick, and separating from nut at maturity; shell hard, 4-angled, flattened, pale, smooth; kernel large, sweet, edible. Preferred habitat, deep, rich, moist soil. Distribution, Maine and Quebec to Delaware and along mountains to Florida, northern Alabama and Mississippi; west to Minnesota and Nebraska; south to Texas. Uses: Lumber used extensively in the manufacture of vehicles, agricultural implements, wheels, sled runners, axe handles, baskets, chairs and for fuel. Nuts valuable in commerce. Tree planted for ornament and shade.

The vertical sheets of shaggy bark give this tree its name. The springiness and toughness of the wood is prophesied in these thin, narrow flakes, so obstinately clinging to the trunks for years. From the close-knit covering of the utmost twig down to the ground the gradual evolution of this bark is a fascinating study. The character of the shagbark is also expressed in the angular twigs and the lithe arms of the tree, etched with perfect distinctness against the sky of winter. Strength, symmetry and grace are there, but never a look of heaviness.

As a fruit tree the shagbark deserves our best attention, No other hardy nut tree compares with it in commercial importance. The value of its lumber has led to the sacrifice of the large trees in the woods. The nuts are diminishing as a wild crop, but the demand is ever increasing. Hickory-nut orchards are being planted. Nurserymen are studying how best to propagate the trees, and to improve the varieties. "Hales' paper-shell hickory nut" was discovered on a single tree in New Jersey. The nuts are unusually large and plump, with thin shells. The kernels have superior delicacy and richness of flavour, and remarkable keeping qualities. A shrewd man began to propagate this exceptional strain. Grafted trees of this variety are beginning to be sold by nurserymen. Several other choice kinds from selected seed are offered. As transplanting is attended by considerable loss, it is best to plant the nuts where the orchard is to stand.

Hickory flowers are not conspicuous in colour or size, but the tree is a wonderful spectacle throughout the spring. First, the buds drop their two black outer scales, and the silky inner ones glisten like lighted tapers on every upturned twig. They grow in breadth and length as they loosen, and a cluster of leaves, small but perfect, and clothed in the softest velvet stand revealed. Then the great scales turn back like sepals of an iris, displaying rich yellows and orange tones, softened and blended by their silky coverings. The opening leaves, delicate in texture and colouring, may easily be mistaken for parts of a great flower.

But the leaves soon declare themselves, and the scales fall. The tree is then draped in long chenille fringes of green. The wind shakes the pollen out of these staminate catkins, and the inconspicuous green nut flowers, clustered in the tips of leafy shoots, spread their stigmas wide to catch the vitalising golden dust. The fringes now strew the grass under the tree; the bloom is past. Summer matures the crop of nuts.

The first frost hastens the opening of the thick husks. The nuts fall, and schoolboys, who have marked the tree for their own weeks before, are on hand to bag the crop to the last sweet nut, if squirrels do not thwart them. In the open space in the barn loft alongside of the bin where pears are spread out to mellow, the nuts dry and sweeten. In the dead cold of winter evenings the story of "Snow Bound," in modern settings, perhaps, but still the same in spirit, will be re-enacted in farm homes in widely distant parts of the country. Nuts and apples and cider in the firelight!

We have been setting fuel down as the last of a tree's uses. Naturally, burning is the end of things, and it is often an ignoble end. But fire is one of the great elemental forces in nature. A great conflagration is magnificent; a smouldering rubbish heap is not. Some kinds of wood sputter peevishly in burning. The most splendid wood fire is made of seasoned hickory. Wake up the old backlog, charred by half a hundred fires. Lay in the kindling and feed the growing flames at last with shagbark cordwood. There is no flame so brilliant as this; no wood burns with a more fervent heat. No wonder "the great throat of the chimney laughs." The passing of hickory wood in flames back to its primal elements is the fitting end of a noble tree.