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Types of Hickory Nuts – Identification Guide

Hickory trees are common across the eastern United States. Their nuts are edible and were an important food source for Native Americans and early settlers. While all hickories produce a hard-shelled nut, there are many different species with nuts ranging in size, shape, flavor and husk characteristics.

This guide will help you identify some of the most common hickory nut varieties found in America’s forests and landscapes. We’ll cover nut appearance, husk traits, and leaf details to differentiate between the hickory species.

Shagbark Hickory Nuts (Carya ovata)

Shagbark-Hickory-Nuts-1024x1024 Types of Hickory Nuts - Identification Guide

One of the most iconic and easily recognized hickories is the shagbark. Its nuts are around 1-2 inches long with a distinctive oval shape that tapers towards one end. The thick nutshell is brownish-red when mature and develops four ridges along its length.

As the name implies, shagbark hickories have very shaggy bark that peels off in long strips and curls away from the trunk. Their compound leaves are made up of five thin, finely-toothed leaflets.

When ripe in fall, the nuts drop from their thick green husks that split open into sections. Shagbark nuts have a sweet, rich flavor and are a popular nut for baking and snacking.

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Shellbark Hickory Nuts (Carya laciniosa)

The shellbark hickory produces some of the biggest nuts around 2–2.5 inches long. They have a round to oval shape and thick, hard shell with prominent ridges along the sides.

Shellbark nuts have a very thick, green husk that mostly stays closed even after the nut drops in fall. The husk is dotted with yellowish scales.

Shellbark leaves are very large at 12–24 inches long with 5–9 lance-shaped, toothed leaflets. The narrow leaf stems allow the leaflets to move independently in the breeze.

This hickory’s bark is rough and deeply furrowed into tight ridges, but does not have the long, loose shaggy strips of the shagbark.

Mockernut Hickory Nuts (Carya tomentosa)

You’ll have a hard time cracking into the thick shells on mockernut hickory nuts, which got their name because they seemed to “mock” the efforts of early settlers! The rounded, brownish nuts are around 1–2 inches long with a sweet, edible kernel that can be extracted with effort.

Mockernut hickory husks are green and relatively thin, splitting about halfway down the sides when mature. The leaves have 7–9 fuzzy, finely toothed leaflets on a stout central stem.

Lacking the signature shaggy peeling bark of some other hickories, mockernut trees have tight ridged gray bark with interwoven furrows and flattened, diamond-shaped ridges.

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Pignut Hickory Nuts (Carya glabra)

Pignut nuts are some of the smallest, reaching only around 1 inch long. They have a pale reddish-brown color, rounded shape and often have a short stem remnant on one end known as a “pigs snout.”

Pignut hickory nuts encased in reddish-green husks that split about halfway to three-quarters down the sides when ripe. The nut’s edible kernel is small and has a bittersweet flavor that gives this tree its name.

True to the “glabra” species name, pignut leaves are slender and smooth, featuring 5–7 narrow, lance-shaped leaflets with finely toothed edges and pointed tips. The bark is gray and tightly ridged.

Bitternut Hickory Nuts (Carya cordiformis)

This is one of the easier hickories to ID in the woods, thanks to its distinctly yellow-green colored nut husks. The hard, round nuts are 0.5–1 inch long with a yellowish shell that turns reddish-brown when mature.

Bitternut hickory nuts have an inedible, very bitter flavor, hence the name. But they are popular food for squirrels, chipmunks, deer and other wildlife. The thin husks split open about halfway down the sides once mature.

This tree’s leaves are made up of 7–11 slender leaflets on a hairy central stem. Bitternut bark has tight, woven ridges resembling a wide diamond pattern.

Pecan Nuts (Carya illinoinensis)

Carya-illinoinensis Types of Hickory Nuts - Identification Guide

While pecans may be the most popular type of hickory nut today, they actually originated in central America before being cultivated throughout the U.S. Pecan nuts grow in thin green husks that split open into four sections when ripe in fall.

Wild pecan nuts have an oval or oblong shape around 1–2 inches long with a smooth brown shell. The edible kernel inside makes up a high percentage of the nut, giving pecans their signature rich, buttery flavor.

Pecan trees have alternate compound leaves made up of 9–17 slender, finely toothed leaflets. Their bark has characteristic ridges that curve in toward each other in a cross-hatched pattern.

While there’s dozens of hickory species, these are some of the most common or well-known types you may encounter. Pay close attention to the nuts’ size, shape, husk covering and fall leaf traits to differentiate the various hickories in your area. With their great taste and nutrition, these native nuts are definitely worth taking the time to identify and appreciate!

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