When I think of hickory, I think of southern BBQ. Hickory adds a smoky, bacon-like flavor and a wonderful dark color to barbequed meat and veggies. That’s why it’s a must-have for home smokers. But beyond BBQ, growing hickory is useful for the homesteader.
You can build with the wood, sell it for a pretty price, or use the branches to make tool handles. Then, of course, there are the nuts.
Hickory nuts are harvested in the fall and ready to eat at Christmas time, and they are as delicious as they are nutritious. Ready to dive in?
What is Hickory
Hickories are large trees in the Carya genus (which also includes pecan trees). Most are used for ornamental interest, wood production, and nuts. Some of the larger species can grow up over 100 feet tall and 75 feet wide, which makes them more suitable for large, rural properties rather than a suburban yard.
However, there are some smaller species that stay closer to 50 feet tall and 40 feet wide.
Related to walnut trees, hickories are deciduous and comprise around 18 species. In North America, you’ll find around 12 species, though there are four that you can commonly find growing wild. Other species grow in Mexico, China, and Indonesia.
You often find hickory trees in moist soil along river banks and streams. Because they are slow-growing, the wood is dense and strong and can be used to make baseball bats, walking sticks, drumsticks, and flooring.
Varieties of Hickory
Not all of the hickory species are grown for the nuts, but we’ll focus on the ones that are. Below are those widely considered to have the best for nuts and wood for smoking. If you want to plant hickory for landscaping or ornamental reasons, you might have additional options. Talk to your local extension office.
Shagbark hickories have a unique bark that looks like it is breaking away from the trunk, which is where the name comes from.
This tree produces nuts that are identifiable by the thin white shell. They are slow growers, so you might want to buy an older, grafted shagbark so you don’t have to wait as long for those wonderful nuts. Some nurseries sell shagbarks that start producing nuts in as few as three years.
These average 60-80 feet.
Shellbark produces larger nuts than shagbark. The nuts have thick brown husks, and tend to be sweeter than shagbark nuts. These trees reach about 60-80 feet in the home garden.
Mockernut produces small nuts that are sweet. They are perfect to brine in salt for savory snacks. The tree tops out at about 60 feet.
This tree produces small nuts that can be bitter, but they suit being candied or ground into flour if you have the patience. They grow to about 60 feet tall.
How to Plant Hickory Trees
Hickories grow natively in the eastern United States in USDA Growing Zones 4 to 8. They thrive in the moist, loamy soil found in eastern forests and woodlands, but are actually quite adaptable.
Having said that, if you want to get your hickories off to a good start, you’ll need to be specific with your soil. Aim for a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. The earth should be well-draining and loamy.
Hickories utilize specific microorganisms in the soil in the areas where they grow, so if you can, gather soil from where they flourish and add this to your earth when you plant your trees. Of course, make sure this is legal in your area.
When planting, you need soil that holds moisture, but make sure it drains well and doesn’t pool. Hickories don’t do well in standing water.
Plant in full sun, but they can tolerate a little shade. Hickories need at least four hours of sunshine each day, but you will get a smaller harvest and slower growth.
Putting Saplings in the Ground
Hickories develop a long, thick taproot, making transplanting difficult, so plant where you intend it to grow. Because it can take up to 15 years for hickory trees to produce nuts, I suggest you get a grafted variety, if available. You want one that is bred to produce as quickly as possible.
Dig a hole that is big enough to contain the root system of the tree you are planting, with a little bit of extra all around. Do this in early spring so that the tree establishes itself well before the next winter. Put the plant in the hole.
Fill the hole halfway and add water. Work in some native soil, if you have it, and then fill the hole the rest of the way. Mix in plenty of good-quality compost.
Caring for Hickory Trees
Once you get them in the ground, it’s time to start caring for your growing hickories.
Fertilize your hickory trees annually in the spring or fall. To work out how much fertilizer to use, measure the trunk’s diameter at four to five feet off the ground.
Each inch of diameter should correspond to a pound of fertilizer. Use an NPK of 10-10-10 and never use more than 25 pounds.
Starting three feet out from the trunk, spread the fertilizer covering the area of the canopy out to the dripline. Water this in well.
You must water this tree regularly in the first year of growth. Give a good deep watering infrequently rather than a light watering frequently. You want to encourage the taproot to grow deep into the ground.
After the first year, the hickory tree should need little extra watering by you as long as your normal weather pattern is present. However, in a drought, provide extra water when necessary.
In the spring, prune low branches that get in the way of your mower or those that may hit people walking under it. Prune out diseased and damaged branches as necessary throughout the year.
Thin the tree every few years to maintain good air circulation, which helps prevent disease.
Companion Planting for Growing Hickory
Don’t plant anything under the hickory for the first year. After this, you can plant various herbs or small veggies, so long as they don’t need lots of sun. Try:
- Lemon balm
Common Problems and Solutions for Growing Hickory
Although a sturdy tree, especially when well established, there are a few pests and diseases that affect hickory trees.
This is a fungal disease that gets into the tree through a damaged branch or bark. It makes the infected area almost look like an inflamed sore. It can spread throughout the tree.
Fungicides aren’t effective with canker, so the best way to deal with them is to cut and remove the infected branch. Use sterile tools and make sure you wash them before using them on another tree. Avoid injuring your tree while weed whacking or working around it.
This is another fungal infection that causes little twigs to sprout on the end of branches. Clumped together they look like a broom, which is where they get the name witches’ broom. This disease can make the nuts fall prematurely from the tree.
Be vigilant and trim away symptomatic branches as soon as they appear.
The first sign you are likely to see on a hickory tree with anthracnose is red blotches on the leaves. If left, it will spread to the branches causing them and the leaves to fall off the tree.
Trim away infected parts and use a fungicide specifically for anthracnose.
On hickory trees, the first sign is wilting and leaves turning a dull brown. Then, whole branches and sections whither and fall off the tree. Broadly, you can address this issue by pruning away infected parts, watering well in dry conditions, and fertilizing every year.
See our article on verticillium wilt for more information.
I find this is usually only a problem on young hickory; a mature tree can withstand an infection. If you have this disease, you’ll see a fungus that looks like white powder on the leaves. The best thing to do is treat it as soon as you suspect it’s present. See our article on treating powdery mildew for more info.
Hickory Bark Beetle
This is probably the most destructive insect for hickory trees. This beetle overwinters under the bark before emerging in the spring. They feed on new growth and then leave to target trees that are struggling or showing signs of a lack of vigor.
Throughout the summer, the males bore into the surface of the tree, allowing the females to lay eggs. Then, she will plug the hole, and the larvae will devour the tree’s interior wood. This prevents enough water and nutrients from flowing through the tree to keep it healthy.
During winter and spring, you’ll see yellow leaves and twigs, along with woodpecker-like holes. The foliage of infested trees eventually turns red, then brown, and the tree dies.
These beetles rarely attack healthy hickory trees. Your best defense is good cultural practices of watering, fertilizing, pruning, and thinning, if necessary. If your tree experiences disease, be sure to address it promptly.
Harvesting and Using Hickory Nuts
Around September and October, the husks of the hickory nut turn from green to brown. The soft, green leather-like exterior hardens to a brittle outer layer. When they are ready to be plucked, they will be brittle enough that can split right open when they fall to the ground.
It’s best to wait for this dry husk before you try to split the nut open to reveal the flesh inside.
Don’t leave the nuts on the ground too long though. There are many creatures who crave these wonderful nuts as much as we do, especially rodents. As cute as chipmunks, squirrels, and raccoons are, we don’t want to share our hickory nuts with them.
You can eat the nuts raw, make a porridge, refrigerate and freeze them and use them in sweet treats and savory dishes.
Use the wood to smoke meats and cheeses, and to flavor your barbecue.