Most hickory nuts in the US are edible, the most popular one being the pecan, which has a limited range in the south. Here in central New England (and in much of the estern US), the most common hickories are the shagbark (Carya ovata) and pignut (Carya glabra). They are easy to find and gather, and as tasty as pecans. I think of them as the pecans of the north, though they do grow in the south, as well. They don’t get as much attention as pecans because the nutmeats are smaller and more difficult to shell. But once you get the hang of it, it’s well worth the effort. I’m going to describe how to identify, where to find, and how to harvest the nuts of shagbark hickory and pignut hickory, so that you, too, can forage for them. If you live in the eastern US, chances are good that you have at least one of them in your area.
Before I knew how to distinguish between the various types of hickory, I was eating both pignuts and shagbark hickory nuts. The latter are universally said to be sweet, but I eventually learned that most sources promote the pignut’s bad reputation, with reports of flavor ranging from bitter to bland. That has not been my experience at all. In fact, I’ve never had a bitter pignut. I find the flavor of nuts from the shagbark and the pignut to be comparable. Both are variable, usually flavorful, but never bitter.
Some sources describe another species of pignut, Carya ovalis, usually called sweet pignut or red pignut. The nuts of C. ovalis are said to be sweet, in comparison to the “bitter to bland” flavor of C. glabra. But I’ve examined the pignuts in my area and I’m pretty sure most are C. glabra. And the nuts are generally sweet. Perhaps some of them are hybrids….But I won’t go into that.
Have you tried pignuts? If you have, I’d love to hear what you thought of them, so consider this a formal invitation to leave a note in the comment section below this post!
Where to find shagbark and pignut hickory trees
The two species are often found together and each grows to about 90 feet, usually in mixed oak forests. In my area, hickory trees are also common along the roads, so I often forage along back roads. They tend to fruit well there, because they get a lot of sun exposure. According to the USDA plant profile, the shagbark hickory ranges over much of eastern North America. However, it’s uncommon in northern New England and Canada. Pignut hickory ranges over most of the eastern US, Texas, and Ontario.
Bark of shagbark and pignut hickory
The shagbark hickory’s immediately obvious distinguishing characteristic is its bark. It becomes quite shaggy when mature, and if you learn to recognize it, you can easily hone in on the tree. This is great to do in winter and spring, because it’s a lot easier to scan the woods for bark characteristics when they’re not obscured by leaves. If you do that, you’ll know where to look in the fall for nuts. However, you’ll miss some nuts that way, because younger shagbark trees that have not yet developed shaggy bark sometimes bear a lot of nuts. Check out the photos to see how the bark appearance changes as the tree ages.
The pignut has more variable and much less distinctive bark. Unless you’re really into the bark identification, it’s not the easiest way to find pignut trees. You’re probably better off looking for the leaves and nuts. If you’ve already found shagbarks, look around in the same woods for pignuts. They’re often found together.
Leaves of hickories
Leaves of shagbark and pignut hickories are very similar. They are alternately arranged on twigs. Each leaf consists of 5-7 leaflets (usually 5) as you can see in the photo. The three leaflets at the end of the leaf are noticeably larger than the others.
What hickory nuts look like
When still in the husks, the nuts of shagbark and pignut hickory appear quite different from each other. The roundish shagbark hickory nuts appear much bigger (about 2 inches in diameter) because they have thick husks. The husks have ridges that make them look like tiny green pumpkins. As the husk dries, it usually opens into 4 sections. By the time they drop to the ground, some nuts will have partially open husks. I always find a few nuts with the husk totally removed, but I’m not sure if these opened naturally, or if an animal removed the husk and dropped the nut.
Tear drop shaped pignuts have thin husks that appear smooth and green at first, but turn warty and brown as they dry. The husks sometimes open slightly into 4 sections as they dry, but often they don’t open at all, and rarely do they open enough to make removal of the nut easy.
Gathering hickory nuts
Here in Massachusetts, both pignut and shagbark hickory nuts are ready to harvest in early September, when they begin to fall to the ground. These trees are very common along my usual walking routes, so I always take a bag with me when I go out in early fall, and collect the nuts off the ground as I go. Most will still have their husks intact. You do not need to wait until they fall to the ground to harvest them; I pick the nuts from low hanging branches as I walk. But don’t be tempted to get a head start and pick them before the first ones have fallen. The nuts won’t be ripe.
When you gather hickory nuts, you will probably notice signs of other animals doing the same. Many other animals like them as much as we do, and you can see a few examples of rodent sign on hickory nuts here.
Removing hickory nut meats from the shell
Spread pignuts and shagbark hickory nuts (whether or not they have lost their husks) in the sun for 1-2 weeks before cracking them. The kernels will shrink from the walls of the shell as they dry, making removal from the shell easier. Most of the shagbark husks will open and the nut will be easy to remove. Crack the shells with a lobster cracker, a hammer, or a stone, and remove remaining pieces of nut meats with a sharp picker. If you gather a lot of hickory nuts and/or black walnuts, you might want a Hardshell Nutcracker. It gives you a lot of control, so you can gently crack the nut in different positions and remove much of the shell without shattering the nutmeat.
Even after drying, most pignut husks will remain closed, but because they are so thin, you do not need to remove them. If the husk does not come off easily, I crack the nut, husk and all, with a Hardshell Nutcracker. Then I remove remaining kernel fragments with a picker.
There are some online videos that show how to crack hickory nuts with a stone or hammer in such a way that the kernel sometimes falls out in one piece or a few large pieces. There may be a knack to that. If so, I don’t seem able to get it, because usually I end up with a lot of tiny fragments. Overall, I find it quicker and easier to crack them with my Hardshell cracker, and I don’t have to worry about smashing my fingers.
Using hickory nuts
Use hickory nuts in any way you use other nuts. I eat the raw nuts alone as a snack, or sprinkle them on yogurt, oatmeal, and salads. They can be added to baked goods and used to make nut milk and nut butter. For a sumptuous treat, try my recipe for birch syrup ice cream with buttered hickory nuts