Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Hickory Nut Primer

A selection of the most common hickory nuts (Carya spp.) in the DC region.

     Every year people ask me about different nuts they find. Hickory nuts (Carya species) seem to always come up. While I'm no expert, I thought I'd give a few pointers on telling them apart that mostly works for me. Consider it a short introduction into hickory nuts. If you plan on tasting any, I'll give a few pointers. The universal rule for most nuts is to float test them first. Take their hulls off and drop them in the water. Those that float have air in them, likely from insects, and are not worth either planting or eating. The ones that sink are the most likely to be viable and have intact meat in them. While not perfect, it works most of the time.

A float test of hulled hickory nuts. The floaters have air pockets and thus not likely any good, the sinkers are heavy with meat.

     The easiest to identify is the Pecan (though many people don't even know that it is a hickory), since many people have eaten the shelled version before. However, Pecans are not really native to the DC area, being more of a Southern tree. Some folks though have planted it locally. Since it tends to not self pollinate very well, the few trees that do produce usually only yield a few nuts around here. The sapsuckers really like to get at the bark it seems too. If there are more than one tree, then you're in luck. I had several trees growing outside of my dorm room in college (William and Mary), but since the locals knew the timing better than I did for getting the nuts, I was pretty unsuccessful in getting much. It's a long nut with well defined ribs that stretch from end to end and has more meat to it than any of our other hickories. They are considered the best tasting. Below are a few photos of Pecans.

A Pecan, Carya illinoinensis. Note the elongated look and well defined ribs on the hull.

A few Pecans with a typical hickory-like leaf.

Our local DC trees, since they tend to not self-pollinate well, produce only a few nuts.

     One of the most noticeable hickory nuts around here is the Mockernut Hickory. The nuts are big and light colored since the hulls split early to drop the light colored fruit. You usually just find the nuts themselves already out of their hulls. They are considered edible, but there's a good reason they're called mockers. Though by their size they promise a good yield, after cracking them you find very little meat in them to eat. They mock you by how little nut meat you get after you work so hard to crack them. Often the nut is so hard to crack that what little was in there is broken up and seems to yield even less than you could ever imagine. Below are some photos of Mockernuts themselves.

A Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) both with and without a hull and next to its pubescent (thus tomentosa in its name) leaf.

Several of the large Mockernuts on the ground with their hulls that I gathered from the ground around them They typically don't have any hulls on them by the time they fall off the tree.

     Much larger and producing much more edible nuts is the Shellbark Hickory. This is has the biggest nuts of all our hickories, and the fruits are quite tasty and yield good amounts of meat.  This species though really isn't native to the DC region however and so is even less common than Pecans around here, few people knowing what it is and therefore not bothering to plant it. Since you're a bit unlikely to find it, I won't write any more on it, but you can find out more if you wish from this Capital Naturalist Blog article I penned on it previously: 

     Shagbark Hickories are also large and said to be edible. They also are not local, being found more in the mountains than in DC. The trees themselves are easy to tell apart due to their shaggy, peeling bark. Below are some photos to help you identify this hickory.

The telltale peeling bark of a mature Shagbark.

Shagbark Hickory leaves and nut.

The sizeable nut of a Shagbark Hickory.

     Much more common and fairly easy to identify is the Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra). The nuts tend to retain their hulls even well after falling from the tree. They do not have very well defined ribs and the hulls don't split as often more than just a bit down the nut. More importantly, they have what I like to think of as a "snout." Now, this is not why they're called pignuts, but that helps me to remember how to recognize them. While some folks consider them edible, their name comes to them due to most folks believing they're fit for hog food. Their flavor is supposed to be quite variable, but that's assuming you find viable and edible nuts. My experience is that they are often infested with weevil grubs and thus often empty or buggy. When scouting for hunting locations, I often find tons of these lying on the ground, but a quick inspection usually results in many of the hulls having the telltale hole of a weevil. I think twice as to whether or not to try and hunt such an area as it doesn't have as much food for wildlife as you think you see. Below are some photos of Pignuts.

A Pignut Hickory with leaf. Note the "snout" that sticks out.

A Pignut with its snout and showing a weevil hole.

     Much less common and often not recognized is the False Shagbark Hickory. It goes by many other names as well, such as Sweet Pignut, False Pignut, and Red Hickory, (Carya ovalis). It is indeed quite easy to confuse with some of the other hickories and most people are not even aware that it exists around here.The easiest way to identify it I've learned is by its nuts. They have fairly well defined ribs and tend to split about halfway along their seams down the nut. Whether it has a hull or not, look at the tip though. If it looks like a tied-off balloon end, then you have C. ovalis. Said to be much better tasting than pignut and the hickory nut that follows, I've yet to try one, though I'm not sure why. I'm going to make it a point this season to do so. Below you'll find some photos that hopefully will help you identify it.

A handful of Carya ovalis, whatever the common name you choose to use. Note that whether with the hull or not, the end looks like a tied-off balloon.  

     Another very common hickory is Bitternut or Swamp Hickory (Carya cordiformis). Its nuts are said to be ill tasting, thus its common name. They're fairly small as well. The round nuts tend to hang on to their hulls, which also are extensively ribbed but only about half way down the nut. That is their best identifying feature in my opinion, though others point to their downy yellow buds as the way to go. The nuts do have little points to their ends, but not as extensively as the pignut or sweet pignut. The photo below may help with identification.

Bitternut Hickories still hanging on the tree. Note the ridges that go about half way down the nut and the pointy end.
     So that's a quick down and dirty look at our local hickory nuts and how I tell them apart (most of the time). Hopefully these clues can help you as well.