How To Identify and Eat Hickory Nuts In The Wild  (2022)

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    Hickory trees can be found all across the United States, and they’re a wonderful source of on-the-trail nutrition. The hickory is in the same family as walnut trees and produces delicious fruits that can taste like pecans. There are several different types of the hickory tree which produce edible nuts, some which taste better than others

    Anytime you’re out on a hiking trail or taking a camping excursion, it’s good to have some emergency supplies. Food, water, and a way to start a fire are three vital aspects to wildlife survival, so anyone going out into the backcountry needs to know where to source all three. We recently wrote about 8 ways to purify water in a pinch, and today we’re going to teach you all about another useful survival tip. In this article, we’re going to share how you can identify hickory nuts out in the wild. 

    A collection of nuts.

    Foraging for nuts is a great way to get nutrition out in the wild.


    What are Hickory nuts? 

    Hickory nuts are the fruit of hickory trees. They have a thick protective husk that can be cracked to reveal the rich, sweet hickory nut meat within. Hickory nuts are high in fats, proteins, and calories, so this nutrient-dense snack is perfect for hiking trips. You can eat hickory nuts directly from the shell, or dry them to save for many months. Native Americans make porridge from hickory nuts, specifically from shagbark hickory trees. 

    Hickory nuts can provide an excellent source of nutrition if you’re foraging for supplies. They grow all over the US and are easy to spot if you know how to identify hickory trees. Hickory nuts are one of the most calorie-dense wild plants, so knowing how to find them could truly save your life in the wild. Read on to find out how to spot a hickory tree, so you’ll always be able to find food. 


    How to spot a Hickory tree

    There are plenty of nut trees in most forests, and many don’t produce fruit as friendly as the hickory nut. The majority of foraging knowledge is knowing what not to eat, most importantly the dangerous plants which look similar to edible fruits. It’s vital that you don’t touch or eat any plant life which could be poisonous, so correctly identifying hickory trees is the most important part of the process. 

    Hickory trees are hardwood deciduous trees of the genus Carya, they shed their greenery on an annual basis. The leaves of any hickory are narrow with a serrated edge and are usually between 2 and 8 inches long. They grow from the stalk in pairs, with 2-9 pairs on either side and a single leaf at the end of the stem. Some hickory trees are more rounded than others, but all have a long narrow shape. 

    Hickory nuts when they are still on the tree look like large green fruits. You should see them poking through the leaves when in season, and once ripe the nuts will drop to the ground. The nuts have a double shell, the first of which is the fibrous outer husk which can be peeled away. Underneath lies the hard nutshell, and within the hickory nut meat. Hickory nuts look very similar to buckeye nuts when still in the shell, but you can tell the difference once the nut is cracked. Hickory fruit has a multi-chambered inner nutshell that divides the nut, like the inside of a walnut. Poisonous buckeye nuts, on the other hand, have a solid nutmeat without any partitions, and this almond-like warning sign is an important one to know about. 

    Different types of Hickory nuts

    There are 16 different species of tree which are a part of the hickory family. The most popular are the walnut and the pecan, both of which have been cultivated and commercially farmed. The hickory nuts you may come across in the forest are of different species to these trees, and their fruits look and taste a little different. Pignut and Shagbark hickories are the most common to find and eat, but there are actually numerous edible hickory nut species. 


    1. Southern Shagbark Hickory 

    The southern shagbark hickory, or carya ovata, is a fairly common hickory species. It grows in limestone soils and its wood has a number of commercial uses, including furniture, flooring, and burning to create hickory-smoked foods. The Carolina shagbark’s distinguishing feature is its bark, which is immediately recognizable. In maturity, the bark of this tree begins to peel, giving a loose and shaggy texture. 

    Looking for bark is the easiest way to spot a shagbark hickory, but you can’t rely on it. Otherwise, you’d miss out on the fruits from younger shagbark hickory trees, which haven’t yet developed the distinctive texture. The fruit of a shagbark hickory is round in shape and generally between one and two inches in diameter. If you find a shagbark hickory nut, you’ll notice a thick, dark husk covers the nut shell within. The average height of shagbark hickories is between 60 and 80 feet tall, but the largest can reach towering heights of 120 feet. 

    You’ll find shagbark hickory trees in the eastern and midwestern US, mostly in humid climates. This tree can withstand a range of temperatures but needs moist soil in order to thrive. Shagbarks are often found scattered throughout pine, oak, and maple forests, and are sometimes planted as ornamental trees. The hickory nuts we’re after are produced after a tree reaches 40 years of maturity, but shagbark hickories can live for two or three hundred years. 

    The nuts from shagbark hickory trees are sweet in taste and can be eaten directly out of the shell. However, if you’re wondering what to do with hickory nuts to spice them up a bit, you can actually cook them! The fruit of the shagbark hickory tastes fantastic when slightly toasted over your campfire. Doing so takes away the fruitiness of the nut, and instead brings forward a more roasted flavor and satisfying crunch. 

    2. Pignut Hickory

    Carya glabra is the Latin name of the pignut hickory, which is often found growing nearby to shagbark trees. Unlike the distinctive shaggy bark of the previous hickory species, the pignut has tight bark which does not peel in maturity. Pignut Hickory bark is grey and thin and has shallow crisscrossing tracks that form close scales on the surface. 

    The leaves of this hickory tree are generally between 8 and 12 inches long, usually with 5 leaflets to a stem. The end leaf is the largest, and all greenery turns a golden brown color in the fall. This tree of the family Juglandaceae grows natively across the eastern United States and Canada. Adult pignut hickories can reach heights of 60 to 80 feet, with a tall but narrow oval-shaped canopy. 

    The fruit of a pignut has a thin, light brown husk. They’re much smaller than shagbark hickory nuts at only half an inch and are rounded in shape. Pignut hickory fruits get their name as some people think the shape of the nut resembles a pig’s nose. Pignuts are slightly pear-shaped and have four ridges on the husk, which does not easily separate from the shell. 

    Pignut hickory nuts are edible but mostly bitter in taste. They still make an excellent emergency trail snack, and every nut tastes different so there’s no guarantee that your nut will be bitter. However, pignuts can be made to taste quite delicious when cooked in a certain way, so if you’re foraging to cook at home then try them out in a recipe. Pignut hickory fruits can be ground up for baking, or candied to turn them into a sweet treat. 


    A fire.

    Roasting your shagbark nuts on the campfire can give them a more interesting flavor.


    3. Bitternut Hickory 

    The bitternut hickory is another of the more common hickory species, found in the center of North America all the way out to the coast. Try not to confuse the bitternut with the butternut, a related tree more commonly known as the white walnut. White walnut trees produce a sweet fruit which is quite different from the astringent taste of the bitternut. While not technically poisonous, we don’t recommend eating bitternuts because their high tannin content makes them incredibly bitter. 

    The bitternut, or carya cordiformis, is a broadleaf deciduous tree with a mature height of 50-70 feet. This hickory species is native to the Chicago region, so you’re likely to see some on a camping trip to Illinois. The bark of a bitternut is gray-green and will become scaly as the tree ages. Fruits of bitternut hickory have four-winged husks and are only about an inch in size. If you shell a bitternut, you’ll find the nut meat in four separate parts. 

    4. Mockernut Hickory 

    The mockernut, or white hickory, is the most abundant of all hickory nut trees in the US. It’s common across the eastern half of the country and can live for up to 500 years.

    The carya tomentosa is called the mockernut because the shell is large, hard, and thick, but the nut meat inside is relatively small. Although it’s a lot of work to crack this hard nut for such a tiny fruit, the delicious reward is worth it. 

    The leaves of the mockernut hickory are large, from 8 to 15 inches in length. Leaves are alternately spread, usually grouped in 7 leaflets. The tree bark is grey and very tight, while the fruits have a distinctive reddish-brown husk.

    Older mockernuts can reach up to 100 feet, so these towering hardwoods make formidable forests. Mockernut hickories grow in drier areas, mostly along slopes and ridges. 

    This species of hickory nuts are definitely edible, and make a sweet snack on the trail. You may need a nutcracker to break the thick husk, but if you can forage enough then there are some delicious recipes to make using mockernuts. For example, brining and baking the nuts can make a delicious savory treat. 

    5. Shellbark Hickory

    At only 10 to 12 years of maturity, the shellbark hickory begins to produce fruit. This tree looks quite similar to the shagbark hickory, it has a similar bark which separates into long thin strips away from the trunk to create a shaggy effect. The shellbark is the largest of the true hickories, with a spread of 50 feet and a height of 90 to 130. It’s also called the big shagbark hickory or the kingnut hickory.

    The leaves of this tree are much larger than other hickories, at 12-24 inches long with 5-6 leaflets. The large leaves and orange twigs distinguish this tree from other hickories, so watch out for these identifying features. Shellbark hickory nuts are also the biggest, they appear in clusters of two or three on the tree.

    The fruits of carya laciniosa can be 1.5 inches wide and are sweet when eaten. The dark brown husk peels away easily to reveal the perfect on-the-trail treat.

    6. Red Hickory

    Carya ovalis is the Latin name for the red hickory, which is one of the more uncommon hickory species in eastern North America. The Red hickory can reach around 100 feet in height and comfortably lives from 100 to 350 years. The compound leaves produce 5 to 9 leaflets in a medium green color. This hickory species has many names, including the sweet pignut.

    This is because the tree is very similar to the pignut hickory but produces a much tastier fruit. 

    Falso shagbark hickory is another name for this species, as a slight shaggy texture can develop over time.

    The fruits of the red hickory have a thick husk, fleshy green until the fall when it becomes brown and brittle. Inside, the nuts are round and about an inch in size. Rednut hickory nuts are sweet and delicious eaten directly from the forest floor. 

    7. Sandnut Hickory 

    The last hickory species we’re going to tell you about is the sandnut. Fruits from this tree are so sweet and delicious that they’re often used in the place of pecans for baking and savory cooking. The carya pallida shows 7-9 leaflets which have hairy grey scales on the underside and can reach up to 80 feet tall. Most sandnut hickory bark is between a pale and dark grey and is smooth, furrowed, and sometimes can be shaggy. 

    Sandnut hickory trees produce almost-round fruit, which emerges from the four-part husk in maturity. The nut shells are thick and bony, but when cracked open the sweet nut meat within is delicious. These nuts are small, starting at sizes of only half an inch, but if you can forage a good supply then they are an excellent ingredient. Sandnut hickories are often found in dry, sandy, sloping areas, growing amongst pine trees. 


    Hickory nuts.

    The easiest way to open hickory nuts is with a nutcracker.


    How to eat Hickory nuts 

    Picking ripe hickory nuts is easy, as they’re usually eaten as they fall off the tree. Most hickory nuts that have fallen to the ground will have a cracked husk, and this can be peeled away and discarded. When you’re foraging, collect only the nuts from within the outer husk. The next step is to carefully inspect all nuts for cracks or boreholes. Weevils and other bugs will bury inside the shell and eat the fruit within, so nuts with holes are useless. 

    Hickory nuts have a hard shell, so you’ll probably need a nutcracker to open them. A vise, hammer, or rock can also be used as a more primitive tool to crack nuts. Balck walnuts are so strong that you can run them over with a car to crack them. When you’re foraging in a survival situation, a rock or the butt of your survival knife is ideal to crack open the snack. If you don’t want to eat them straight away, cracked nuts can be stored in an airtight container for several months. 


    Final Verdict:

    Foraging for food in the wild is an essential survival skill, as well as one of the most useful talents you can use to impress your camping buddies. If you know how to identify hickory nut trees and other fruit-bearing plants in the wild, it can literally save your life. Not only is it the difference between eating a bitter and a sweet-tasting nut, but it could actually be what prevents a trip to the poison control center. 

    The fruit from hickory trees is not always edible, so it’s a good idea to know how the blooming season works. Pollination depends on the availability of other hickories nearby, so a sole hickory will not be able to produce nuts. Once a hickory tree is mature, the first and second bloom will not produce any edible nuts. However, from here onwards a tree could fruit every one to two years. You never need to harvest any sort of hickory nut from the tree; any ripe fruit will fall directly to the ground. This happens from September onwards, during the fall period, so all you need to do is get there before the squirrels! 


    Bonus tip: Check out this video on collecting hickory nuts for long-term storage!



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    Riley Draper

    Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.