Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is the family of trees in the genus Carya. We know them as Hickory. Tall, tough, and stout, hickories are among the most useful and desirable trees in the forest. Like oaks, there are a lot of different species of hickories, but also like oaks, it doesn’t really matter that much. While some hickory nuts certainly taste better than others, all hickories are useful for our purposes.
Native only to North America, hickories are members of the walnut family. There are some who will argue that there are hickory species native to China and northern India, however, these trees are generally considered their own unique family. Depending on which taxonomist you ask, there are either 17 or 19 species of hickory in north America, ranging from Canada south to Mexico and all across the continent. Specific identification can be confusing. The leaves, bark, and nuts of most hickories look very similar. Leaves are pinnately compound, with four evenly paired leaves on each stem with one leaf on the tip. Regardless of species, all hickories turn a brilliant golden yellow in the fall. The bark is a diamond pattern ranging in color from nearly black to nearly white, and every shade of gray in between. Mature shagbark hickories have a bark that sloughs off in long strips and looks a lot like beef jerky. (Or does it…? Maybe we’re just hungry.)
Hickory wood is among the most desirable in the entire forest. There are woods that are harder and woods that are tougher, but nothing matches hickory for its combination of durability and shock resistance. Like oak last week, hickory is one of the trees that built America. Historically, it was used for bows, wagon wheels and spokes, baseball bats, tool handles, and even some of the frame components for the earliest airplanes. Its modern construction uses are generally limited to hardwood flooring and cabinetry. However, manufacturers all over the world still use hickory handles for their axes, hatchets, hammers, shovels, hoes, and mattocks. There’s simply nothing better out there. Hickory handles are hard and durable enough to take serious hits without breaking, but flexible enough to not transfer all of the impact to the user. For bushcraft purposes, hickory makes a superb baton. Hickory batons will outlast mere mortal batons by two or three fold. Hickory is also a great source of cordage – if you can find a hickory sapling the diameter of your little finger or smaller, you can cut it, strip the leaves off, and make a withy. Take the sapling in your hands and lightly break it along its length to loosen the bark, and then twist it. Voila, a quick, easy length of super-strong natural cordage. If you’re an advanced bushcrafter, hickory is also one of the best woods to make bows from.
Hickory is also some of the best firewood to be had. It burns hot with little smoke, is long-lasting, and makes great cooking coals. Speaking of cooking, most of you already know that hickory is hands-down the best wood in the Eastern Woodlands for smoking meat. Although we do it now for flavor, hickory smoke was originally used because the pungent, aromatic flavor was better at repelling flies and other pests than any other wood smoke.
The real prize of the hickory tree, however, is the nuts. (Technically a drupe.) Most fall off the tree between September and November, and are viable on the ground through the winter… if the squirrels, deer, and bears don’t get them first. They’re encased in a hard husk which splits into four pieces, revealing the nut. They are quite literally a tough nut to crack. Unlike walnuts or pecans, which have relatively thin shells come out in nice, easy halves, hickory nuts are like little rocks. And when you do get them open, getting the nut meat out is difficult and time consuming. But all that work is well worth it. While all hickory nuts are edible, some definitely taste better than others. Shagbark and shellbark hickory nuts are prime fare. They have a rich, nutty flavor with a hint of sweetness - similar to a pecan, but richer. They’re excellent in all baked goods – cakes, pies, cookies, you name it. For our purposes, they’re a lifesaving survival food. They’re among the richest plant-based sources of nutrition in the Eastern Woodlands:
Just one ounce of hickory nuts has…
- 190 calories
- 18.2 grams of fat
- 5.2 grams of carbohydrates
- 3.6 grams of protein
- 16% daily value Vitamin B1
- 3% daily value Vitamin B6
- 12% daily value Magnesium
- 10% daily value Phosphorous
No wonder the squirrels hoard them.
If you really want to go native, you can process hickory like the Indians did and pulverize the nuts whole, boil the mash, and then strain out the solids to get a high-fat, nutritious hickory milk. If you’re wondering where hickory got its name, this is it. Natives called the drink pawhiccora, which was mispronounced by white settlers as “pawhickory” and later shortened to just “hickory.”
If you’re not blessed with the “sweet hickories,” and have to contend with the less desirable species like the aptly named Bitternut Hickory, simply treat the nut meat the same way you would acorns, just like we talked about last week. Cover them with twice their volume of water, boil until the water looks like tea, change, and repeat. This leaches the tannins out and vastly improves the flavor.
Hickory leaves and nut shells are also useful in repelling insects. The same aromatic oils that repel flies from smoked meat when burned also keep bugs out of your bedding when fresh. Fresh hickory nut shells have an intoxicating, spicy, herbal aroma that is better than any store-bought potpourri if you’re into that kind of thing. The leaves have it too, in lower concentrations. When you’re out gathering the nuts for food, grab some leaves and save the shells to line your shelter with. You’ll sleep better knowing that ticks, fleas, mosquitoes, centipedes, earwigs and other critters won’t be crawling all over you in your sleep.
In American culture, hickory is synonymous with toughness and strength. President Andrew Jackson earned the nickname “Old Hickory” during the War of 1812: His uncomplaining toughness was legendary among his men during the New Orleans campaign. He gave up his own food and horses and spent his own money to make sure his men were supplied. In battle, he was known to stand tall and unmoved despite the chaos swirling around him – just like a hickory tree in a storm. The tree has endured as a symbol of his military leadership – and American resolve – ever since.