Exploring The Last Green Valley: Shagbark hickory a beautiful and useful tree

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Exploring The Last Green Valley: Shagbark hickory a beautiful and useful tree

We have several hickory trees in our neighborhood, but the one I appreciate the most stands by the stone wall bordering the back pasture. At least 60 feet tall in the open air, the tree benefits from little competition for sunlight. Its rounded crown is well shaped, full of leaves, and it has a thick main stem with spreading branches.

The tree is distinctive, not only for its place, shape and size but for its shaggy, silvery gray bark. As its description implies, it is a shagbark hickory tree, one of a few on my property. In fact, we have two types of hickory on our land, the shagbark and the pignut hickory.

Shaggy is a perfect description for the bark of the shagbark hickory as its loose strips appear to be peeling away from the trunk at both the top and bottom. This is the defining feature to distinguish the shagbark from the other hickory tree types. The pignut hickory, for example, has silver gray bark with tight interlacing ridges. Other types of hickory trees found in Southern New England include the mockernut hickory and the bitternut hickory.

The hickory is of the genus Carya, a hardwood that is found in North America and Asia and is in the walnut family. The leaves are alternate compound with usually five, and sometimes seven, large leaflets on each leaf stem. The nuts have a husk that peels off revealing a hard shell inside.

Hickory trees have several important uses for both humans and wildlife.

If you have a wooden-handled hammer or axe, more than likely the handle has been fashioned from hickory wood. The wood is extremely strong, shock resistant, and holds up well to the wear and tear of regular use.

The commercial use of the wood can also be found in athletic equipment, furniture and flooring. It has a long history of uses, including wooden ladders, carriage wheels and spokes and in timber frame construction. If you like smoked meats, then you’re familiar with the flavor hickory smoke can impart on meats, especially hickory-smoked bacon.

Those who heat their homes with wood know the significant value of hickory as an excellent heat source. Among the trees in our region used for cordwood, the hickory has the highest BTUs. (BTU stands for British Thermal Unit with one BTU equal to the amount of energy used to raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree of Fahrenheit.)

Hickory trees produce flavorful nuts for both animal and human consumption. The shell is very hard, not easy to break open, but is worth the effort once you taste the sweet pecan-flavored fatty nutmeat. The nutmeat is high in calories, estimated at 193 calories per ounce.

I have not taken the time to gather the nuts and extract the meat from inside the hard shell, but I know the fat and happy squirrel population in our neighborhood has certainly benefited from the many hickory trees. Other animals relying on the hickory for food source include mice, chipmunks, rabbits, black bear, wild turkeys and foxes. Bats roost within the snug crevices of the long thick plates of the shaggy bark, providing shade and perfect cover during the spring and summer daylight hours.

The shagbark hickory reaches maturation for seed production at around 40 years. Among our deciduous trees the hickory is very long-lived with a lifespan of 200 years, with some shagbarks continuing to produce seeds until 300 years of age.

We live in a beautiful region called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor — 77 percent undeveloped land predominately in forest and field. Among the many species of deciduous trees in our region the shagbark hickory stands out for its beauty, unique bark and beneficial uses as a wood and food source.

I hope you’ll join me and others as we care for, enjoy and pass on this special place we call home – The Last Green Valley.

Bill Reid is the chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

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