Floridata Plant Encyclopedia

A Floridata Plant Profile 836 Carya ovata

Common Names: shagbark hickory, shellbark hickory, scalybark hickory Family: Juglandaceae (walnut Family)

shagbark hickory
This shagbark hickory is at home at the Mount Airy Arboretum in Cincinnati, Ohio.


Next to the pecan (Carya illinoinensis), shagbark hickory is the most widespread, most important, and easiest to identify of the hickories. It has the best tasting hickory nuts, too. The deliciously sweet and fragrant kernels are enclosed in thin-shelled, light tan nuts that are a little longer than broad and rather flattened. The nuts are themselves enclosed in spherical husks, about 2 in (5.1 cm) long and dark yellowish or reddish brown at maturity. In September and October the husks split open in four sections, exposing the ripe oily nuts. The bark of a mature shagbark hickory is gray and broken up into long, flat plates that are loose at one or both ends where they curl outward, away from the trunk. From a distance, the trunk looks shaggy. The shagbark has an irregular, rounded crown and gets as tall as 150 ft (45.7 m), but most specimens are around 80 ft (24.4 cm) tall with a canopy spread of around 50 ft (15.2 m). Trees grown in the open often have a trunk that divides into two or three prongs a third of the way above the ground, but trees that grow in the forest usually have a straight trunk that is free of branches for 50 ft (15.2) more. Like other hickories, the shagbark has compound leaves that have a distinctive odor when bruised. Shagbark hickory leaves have five (rarely seven) leaflets. Water hickory (C. aquatica) and shellbark hickory (C. laciniosa) also can have shaggy bark, but they have more leaflets per leaf: 7-9 and 9-17, respectively. Cornucopia lists 17 cultivars of shagbark hickory, including a hybrid with shellbark hickory.

hickory bark
The 'shaggy' bark of this hickory provides one of its common names.


Shagbark hickory, Carya ovata, is native to eastern North America from Maine and southern Quebec and Ontario to southeastern Minnesota and southward to East Texas and Georgia. There are scattered localities in the mountains of eastern Mexico. Shagbark hickory grows in dry upland sites as well as in well-drained sites in lowlands and river valleys. Shagbark hickory usually grows in mixed hardwood forests, with oaks and other broadleaf hardwoods, but it also is common in pastures where it was intentionally left standing when the land was cleared.


Shagbark grows faster than other hickories, but it still takes some 40 years to reach commercial seed-bearing age. Best production is from trees 60-200 years old. Crops tend to be heaviest every 2 or 3 years, with lighter crops in the years between. A healthy mature shagbark can produce 2-3 bushels of shelled nuts in the good years. Light: Young shagbark hickories are moderately tolerant of shade, and when released from the shade they grow rapidly. Moisture: Established shagbarks can tolerate normal droughts. They may drop their nuts in extremely dry years. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 8. Propagation: Shagbark hickory is usually propagated by seed which is planted outdoors as soon as it is ripe. (Squirrels often volunteer for this.) Selected cultivars are grafted onto seedling stock. The hickories are difficult to transplant because of their very long taproots. Two year old seedlings can have a taproot 2-3' long.


Shagbark hickory is a bold and handsome tree in the landscape, and not second fiddle to any other tree. The bark is very ornamental. The foliage turns rich yellows and browns in autumn. Shagbark may be too large and too slow growing for most home landscapes, but it's an excellent choice for parks and estates.

shagbark hickory foliage
Shagbark hickory creates an attractive display in autumn when leaves turn yellow.


The nuts of shagbark hickory were a staple for many North American Indian tribes. They mashed the nuts with water, then used the "hickory milk" to make breads and cakes, and to serve like butter on vegetables. Sugar and syrup can be made from the sap, as with sugar maple (Acer saccharum). The wood is so heavy and dense that it has nearly as much heating capacity (calories or BTUs) as soft coal. It is used for smoking hams, bacon, sausage and other meats and for making high quality charcoal, as well as for tool handles, baseball bats, and (formerly) wagon wheels.

There are about 25 species of hickories, and all are native to the eastern U.S. except for one (C. cathayensis) which occurs in eastern China. In the geologic past, though, there were hickories in Europe and the Mediterranean region.

Steve Christman 10/23/00; updated 11/9/03

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Carya species profiled on Floridata:

Carya glabra

( pignut hickory )

Carya laciniosa

( shellbark hickory, kingnut hickory, big shellbark hickory )

Carya ovata

( shagbark hickory, shellbark hickory, scalybark hickory )

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