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Shellbark Hickory

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The Ohio Chapter ISA continued efforts is to advance responsible tree care practices through research, technology, and education while promoting the benefits of trees. This month Tree-Of-The-Month is commonly known as the Shellbark Hickory.

The Shellbark Hickory (Carya laciniosa) a slow growing, but potentially can become a massive tree. The Shellbark species name, laciniosa, means shredded or cleft into narrow divisions, referring to the loosening plates of bark. The species is known to live up to 300 years of age. The common name is in reference to the mature bark that peels away like a shell, albeit in strips. Shellbark Hickory usually emerges with bronzed leaves (pinkish in color) in spring, and the base of the new growth may have reflexed winter bud scales that hang on for one or more years. The species is scattered throughout Ohio, is often found in moist bottomlands where Shagbark Hickory usually does not grow. As a member of the Walnut Family the Shellbark is related to other Hickories and the Walnuts trees. The Shellbark Hickory has wood that is heavy, dense, strong, yet elastic and is sought after for making tool handles, athletic equipment, furniture, construction timbers, and firewood, and its wood chips are utilized in the smoking of meats. This species is also prized as fuelwood and charcoal.

There are no known forms or version of the tree species that are recognized by botanist, but numerous cultivars of shellbark hickory have been named.  Most of which originating in Iowa or Pennsylvania. For example, Pecan trees have been crossed with Nussbaum Hickory to produce extra-large nuts for the species. One of hybrids known as 'Gerardi', has been recommended as a rootstock for pecan. Shellbark hickory has also ben hybridizes with shagbark hickory to produce a tree commonly known as Dunbar’s hickory (C. x dunbarii).

The Shellbark Hickory starts producing nuts(seeds) at about 40 years of age. Fruit is an edible nut in a thick, chestnut-brown to orange-brown husk. The Shellbark Hickory will likely produce nuts for at least 75-200 years. Shellbark Hickory produces a sweet flavored nut that is a largest of the Hickories. The flavor of shellbark kernels is considered by many to be inferior to Shagbark Hickory.  The large nuts are relished by squirrels and give it an alternative common name of King Nut Hickory, due to their being the largest of the hickories. They are eaten by a wide range of wildlife species, including ducks, quail, wild turkeys, squirrels, chipmunks, deer, foxes, raccoons, and white-footed mice. Hickories are generally self-fertile but larger crops of better-quality seeds are produced following cross-pollination.

The Shellbark Hickory is a native of the Midwestern United States and stretching into portions of the southern, eastern, and Great Plains states.  Shellbark Hickory is a climax forest tree in moist soils, particularly along flood plains and bottomland areas. The Shellbark Hickory grows to 80 feet height by 40 feet wide when found in the open areas of the landscape.

Planting Requirements:

The Shellbark Hickory prefers deep, moist to occasionally wet, rich soils under sunny conditions, such as are found in bottomlands, flatlands that do not drain quickly, and floodplains. As a young tree it tolerates shade in its youth, when it is stretching for sunlight beneath the canopy of taller trees and develops its deep taproot system. Like most Hickories, it is very tolerant of summer drought, even though it prefers moist conditions. It is found in USDA hardiness zones 5 to 8.

Ethnobotanical Information

The Native Americans stored massive quantities of these Shellbark Hickory nuts, as "hickory milk" was a nutritious staple of most of their cooking. American pioneers were also aware of hickory's excellence as a source of fuel and used the wood to heat their drafty cabins.

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Tree Selection Tips

The Ohio Chapter ISA recommends working with an ISA Certified Arborist when selecting or caring for any tree in your landscape. To better guide you on the vital plant information for the Red Buds use our friendly users guide below:

Genus Carya
Plant Family Juglandaceae
Life cycle Perennial woody
Origin Native to most of the eastern United States
Habitat Part shade, sun; average moisture; deciduous forests, urban and rural landscapes
Tree form Round to Oval (see reference)
Does it produce shade? Yes
Soil Acidic, alkaline, loamy, moist, rich, sandy, wet and clay soils.  It is drought-tolerant.
Bloom season Spring-Male flowers are 5- to 8-inch-long catkins.  Female flowers are in 2- to 5-flowered spikes.
Fruit/Seed Fruit is an edible nut in a thick, chestnut-brown to orange-brown husk.
Plant height 60 to 80 feel tall and wide and sometimes larger
Plant spread Equal to height
Growth rate Slow
Suitable for planting under or near electric(utility) wires No
Potential Concerns Plant it in a park-like area where large size, leaf litter, fruit and twig drop will not be a problem.  Its savory nuts attract squirrels and other animals that may be unwanted in a residential area.  Although this tree is self-fertile, cross-fertilization produces an increased number of better-quality nuts.  The hickory bark beetle is sometimes a significant pest on this tree, as are borers and twig girdler.  Seed production can be reduced by pecan weevil and hickory shuckworm.  Hickory is resistant to Verticillium wilt.

Written by Mark A. Webber BCMA, CPH, LTE,  MArborA, OCMNT, TRAQ



Grauke, L.J. 1988. A cultivar list for hickory. 79th Annual Report of the Northern Nut Growers Association.

Northern Nut Growers Association, Inc. 2000. Web Site. <>

Schlesinger, R.C. 1990. Carya laciniosa (Michx. f.) Loud. Shellbark Hickory. Pp. 211-214, IN: R.M.

Burns and B.H. Honkala (tech. coords.). Silvics of North America. Volume 2. Hardwoods. USDA, Forest Service Agric. Handbook 654, Washington, D.C.

Stone, D.E. 1993. Carya. Pp. 417-425, IN: Flora of North America, north of Mexico. Vol. 3. Oxford Univ. Press, New York, New York.

Photograph sources Mark A. Webber 2019

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