The word Carya comes from ancient Greek, κάρυον, or nut. The fabled Hickory comes from this genus and includes 17 to 19 species of deciduous trees with compound leaves and large, usually edible, nuts. About a dozen species are native to North America and 5–6 species from China and Indochina.

Along with its well-known cousin the Pecan (Carya illinoisensis), the Shagbark hickory, or Carya ovata, is one of the most distinctive of all the hickories and the most ornamental. It is native to southeast Canada and the eastern US where it reaches a height of 60 to 100 feet with a spread to about 40 feet. It is a long-lived tree reaching 200 years or more in age. It has a picturesque, oval outline with the lower branches somewhat drooping, the upper branches upright, and the middle branches just about horizontal. The bark from which its common name derives is at first smooth and gray, but the bark of mature trees is broken into the long, wide plates attached at the middle, curving away from the trunk and resulting in a wonderfully coarse, shaggy appearance. It is quite simply the best ornamental hickory due to its magnificent form and beautiful bark.

This tree features smooth, medium yellow-green, compound leaves, and each leaf has 5 (less frequently 7 or 9) finely-toothed leaflets which range from 3-7 inches long. The leaves develop a good yellow-gold in autumn. The greenish yellow flowers are not particularly showy but the female flowers give way to edible, oval-rounded nuts. Each nut is encased in a thick husk which splits open when ripe. These nuts are an added bonus as they are quite tasty and are even sold commercially. They are also highly prized by a variety of wildlife. Cross-pollination generally produces a more abundant crop of better quality nuts.

It is best grown in humusy, rich, moist, well-drained loams in full sun to part shade. Obviously, a tree of this size is best suited to large yards, parks and rural properties, but where room is available, it would be a magnificent specimen. It is hardly ever available in the discount nurseries but rather in the specialty tree nurseries.

Shagbark hickory


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