Wild Hickory Nuts: Know Your Botany
I remember Euell Gibbons and his Grape-Nuts commercials. He used to say that the malty taste of the cereal reminded him of wild hickory nuts. I suppose many went and collected some just to check it out. The problem is that there are many species of hickories in our range and some of them aren’t particularly delectable.
Hickories belong to the genus Carya, as does the beloved pecan tree (Carya illinoensis). Pecans are common in older landscaping, and everyone has several in the neighborhood. They are easy to harvest. Just pick them up if you can beat the squirrels to them. They are also easy to crack and extract the meats, which are sweet, mild and familiar. Pecans are rare in the woods but common around town. Take advantage of them, for so many go to waste.
Among the wild hickories espoused by the late Mr. Gibbons and common around here are shagbark (Carya ovata) and mockernut (Carya tomentosa). They are both flavorful, though I prefer the shagbark even more than the prized pecan. Shagbarks are rarer near the coast.
One disadvantage of these two hickories is that they have thick shells. You’ll work for your rewards. They are tough to crack even with a sturdy nutcracker, so a hammer is the preferred tool.
Another problem is that there are far more common species that are not tasty at all. I suppose they are tasty, but the flavor is not pleasant. The pignut (Carya glabra) and the bitternut (Carya cordiformis) are easy to find and squirrels eat them. Red Hickory (Carya ovalis) is similar to pignut, but the seed is not as bitter.
All hickories have alternate compound leaves. That means the leaves protrude from the stems singly, but each one has multiple blades or leaflets. Red, pignut and shagbark usually have five leaflets. Mockernut and bitternut have seven to nine leaflets, but the leaves on mockernut have a rough feel. The species name tomentosa (Latin for hairy) implies just that.
The best way to distinguish shagbark from the rest is the bark. See it once and you will never forget it. Mockernut hickory has dark gray bark with a network of shallow ridges, usually in a diamond-shaped pattern. Bitternut bark is much smoother.
Once you find a shagbark or mockernut tree, harvesting is a matter of finding the nuts among the litter of the forest floor. Look for the bright cream-colored gems under the canopy. Size varies from tree to tree and year to year.
Assuming you have identified the correct species, you’re still not out of the woods. Another problem is the hickory nut weevil, which can ruin two thirds of the nut crop. Look for small holes in the shells and discard any which have them.
If you can bring home a bucketful, crack them out, and separate meat from shells. The taste will be worth it. Use hickory nuts to substitute for pecans or walnuts in all of your favorite recipes. Above all, learn your botany and taste a few before you collect too many.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School