Hickory Nuts: Foraging for Pignut and Shagbark Hickory Nuts

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Pignuts and shagbark hickory nuts, with Washington hawthorn

Pignuts and shagbark hickory nuts, garnished with Washington hawthorn

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

Mature shagbark hickory tree before leaf out in spring

Mature shagbark hickory tree before leaf out in spring

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.

Bark of shagbark hickory trees, on (from left to right) 4 inch, 10 inch, and 16 inch diameter trunks. All three trees bore a lot of nuts.

Bark of shagbark hickory trees, on (from left to right) 4 inch, 10 inch, and 16 inch diameter trunks. All three trees bore a lot of nuts.

Bark of mature pignut hickory tree

Bark of mature pignut hickory

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

Compound leaves of shagbark hickory. Top on left, underside on right. Each leaf consists of 5 leaflets (sometimes 7). Pignut hickory leaves are similar.

Compound leaves of shagbark hickory. Top on left, underside on right. Each leaf consists of 5 leaflets as shown (sometimes 7). Pignut hickory leaves are similar.

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

Shagbark hickory nuts usually grow singly or in pairs. This photo was taken in early August, when the nuts are large, but when husks are still fresh, green, and closed. They are not ready to pick.

Shagbark hickory nuts usually grow singly or in pairs. This photo was taken in early August, when the nuts are large, but when husks are still fresh, green, and closed. They are not ready to pick.

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.

Shagbark hickory nuts. Shows how husk dries and opens. Sometimes, however, the husk remains mostly closed even after it dries.

Shagbark hickory nuts. Shows how husk dries and opens. Sometimes, however, the husk remains mostly closed even after it dries.

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.

Pignuts that are just beginning to dry.

Pignuts that are just beginning to dry.

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

Shagbark hickory nuts with husks removed

Shagbark hickory nuts with husks removed

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 Good Cook Classic Nutcracker with Picks, 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 Kenkel 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.

Shagbark hickory nut meats. It's challenging to get large fragments, and some pieces have to be removed from the shell with a picker.

Shagbark hickory nut meats. It’s challenging to get large fragments, and some pieces have to be removed from the shell with a picker.

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.

The dry, brown husks of these pignuts remain tightly attached. They fall off in pieces as you crack them.

The dry, brown husks of these pignuts remain tightly attached. They fall off in pieces as you crack them.

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

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Hickory Nuts: Foraging for Pignut and Shagbark Hickory Nuts — 24 Comments

  1. Pingback: Birch syrup ice cream with buttered hickory nuts - One Acre Farm

  2. Thank you for this great post on hickory nuts. It was very timely for me. I only recently became interested in foraging when I realized that the huge green balls that dropped into our yard every fall were black walnuts. I then started paying more attention to things on the ground, and found a pignut hickory tree at my work. (took a while for this total newbie to figure out what they were!). So now I’ve started looking. Just found that the beautiful old cemetery down the street has at least a dozen full, mature old hickory. I picked up a couple of gallons in just a few minutes. Can’t find shagbark though, unfortunately. Tasted the pignut (not sure what Latin name variety it is, but looks like those in your picture) and they are sweet and lovely. I do have a question about sorting and storing. First of all, it hasn’t been sunny enough to lay out nuts to dry, and won’t the squirrels grab them? I left some dehusked walnuts in my driveway the other day, and they all disappeared! Secondly, does float testing for bad nuts work on hickories like it does on black walnuts? If so, should they be dried and dehusked, so floating only the hard nuts? I tried float testing some still in their husks, and two thirds floated! That seems like a high failure rate unless there was some problem with the particular tree. Any suggestions on storage? In the husk, in the shell, or already shelled? Thanks so much! I am going to order a hardshell nutcracker (Get Crackin one, I think) and can’t wait to start using some of this great nutmeat!

  3. Hi Kim,

    Sounds like you hit a pignut bonanza! Seems like most of the hickories did really well this year. Not sure where you are from, but there was a bumper crop both here and in the southeast this year. If you don’t have shagbark, you might have shellbark, depending on your location. There are 8-10 other species, too, depending on location.

    As for pilfering rodents, yes they will quickly snatch the nuts if left on the ground, especially if left near trees in the same place for days at a time. To prevent that, spread nuts on top of something human made that is movable (I spread them on a screen set on a wheel barrow). Put it in an open area away from trees, bring it in at night (I wheel it into garage or breezeway), and back out during day. It helps to move wheel barrow a couple of times during day, too. Basically, rodents are wary of human made things that move around a lot and that are away from protective cover.

    You have to husk them for floating test to be reliable. Husks themselves might float and air between husk and nuts will make good nuts float. I haven’t been bothering with floating test because the vast majority of my hickories are good.

    You can store either in shell or out of shell. I store mine in the shell, in a closed container at room temperature. Shelled nuts can be stored for weeks to months in container at room temp, but for more than a few months, I would store shelled nuts in freezer.

    Thanks for writing! Did I answer everything?

  4. Thanks for this very helpful information about hickory nuts! I’ve harvested shagbark hickory nuts several times over the years. Last week I was on a hike and discovered what looked like the same nuts, but the tree didn’t have the trademark shaggy bark. I surmised that it was a different variety of hickory, and you’ve helped me decide that it was a pignut hickory. I did harvest a nice bag of these nuts, and I’m in the process of cracking them. I am thinking of making them into a “pecan” pie!

  5. Hi James! Glad it was helpful. One thought: if the nuts you found had thick husks, they could be nuts of mockernut hickory, Carya tomentosa. Those are also sweet and edible, bark is similar to pignut, but husks look more like those of shagbark hickory. (There are more than 10 species of hickory in North America, but I wrote only about the few species common in my immediate area, to avoid an unnecessarily complicated post). Good luck with your pie!

  6. Here in East Texas we have lots of black walnut and pignut hickories. One year, the kids and I decided to make a couple of hickory pies, in place of pecan pies, at Thanksgiving. After cracking and picking the nuts, we decided we must have been crazy to attempt that! Of course, the pies were delicious! But it is way too much work to get that much meat out all at one time.

    • Yeah, that’s why I invested in that expensive hardshell nutcracker. You have a lot of control when you crack the nut, so it’s easier to get bigger pieces of nut, and less picking to do thereafter. Still, it’s harder to get the nutmeat out of hickories than other nuts, so I hear you!

  7. Pingback: Foraging Ethic - One Acre Farm

  8. Pingback: Kale Salad with Maple Vinaigrette - One Acre Farm

  9. Hi! I’ve been reading your weblog for some time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Houston Tx!
    Just wanted to mention keep up the excellent work!

  10. Thanks for the article! Found it very interesting and it verified what I believed to be true! Many folks have told me that pignut hickory nuts were a waste of time but I always found them to be quite delicious. I am planning on foraging for them this year and most hickory nuts on my farm are pignut. A few years ago my sister in law obtained some pignuts that her grandfather had shelled and frozen and decided to experiment. She made pies from them following a pecan pie recipe and she gave my wife one I think to get me to be a guinea pig. I was a pig alright. That was the best darn pie I have ever had to this day and I think it’s way past time for another. Yes I ate every bite. I would have shared with my wife but she said I could have it. Maybe I can get her to try the next one. Thanks again think I’ll go see if any are falling yet!!!!!

  11. I live in northeast Texas and we have a pignut tree that is loaded with nuts. I have always been told that pignet are not for eating. Our Pecan cracking place will not crack or buy pignuts. Hate to see these nuts go to waste if they are good. Thanks

    • Just be careful – I have learned that some people call the bitternut (Carya cordiformis) a “pignut”. Bitternuts are extremely bitter, so you will know immediately if that is what you have by the flavor. If you do have true pignuts, though, they are edible.

  12. We probably have ten hickory trees on our property. I’ve tried raking them in the autumn but the job is overwhelming! We can’t possibly use them all. It’s like walking on a carpet of marbles! Doesn’t seem much interest in our area in buying them. Any suggestions?

  13. I just found your site while looking up information on shagbark hickory trees. I live in Eastern MA and, after attending a foraging talk that helped me identify them, I went back and gathered a whole bunch. I like to be cautious, though, so while I am 99.5% sure I know what I have, my final question is, are there any dangerous look-alikes to shagbark hickories? I’ve looked through several books and websites, but haven’t seen any cautions. Thanks for posting and for the nutcracker tips.

    • Lisa, there aren’t really any “dangerous look alikes”, but I have no way of knowing if you’ve actually found hickory nuts, so I can’t tell you to eat what you have found. There is a bitternut hickory, Carya cordiformis, which tastes incredibly bitter and horrible (I have tasted one), but it won’t hurt you to taste a bit of one nut. You will not want to eat any more of it, so there is no danger, barring any sort of unusual sensitivity or allergy. Nonetheless, I highly recommend you get a couple of good books on tree identification to be certain you know what you are looking at. Robert Harmount Grave’s book, Illustrated Guide to Trees and Shrubs is excellent.

      • Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve requested it from the library. I’ve looked through several books and all confirm my findings, but I like to be thorough, so I’ll check that book out while the nuts are drying.

  14. WE RECENTLY PURCHASED 8 ACRES OF LAND HERE IN THE FINGER LAKES, NY. THE LAND HAS ALOT OF TREES, SOME ARE SHAGBARK HICKORY, BUT THEY DON’T SEEM TO BE PRODUCING! WHAT DO YOU THINK IS WRONG? ONE OF MY THOUGHTS IS THE TREES ARE THICK AND MAYBE THEY ARE NOT GETTING ENOUGH SUN. ANY SUGGESTIONS APPRECIATED, BECAUSE WE WOULD LOVE TO HAVE THE TREES PRODUCE. THANKS.

    • It could well be that they don’t get enough sun, but it could also be that this is just a poor year. Hickories are like oaks in that respect – once in a while they produce prolifically, some years they produce modestly, and other years they produce very poorly. Last year was a banner year for hickories here in central MA, with tremendous nut production. This year, however, is the poorest I’ve seen in my 17 years of living here. So watch your trees for a few years to see what happens to production. You might consider thinning the trees in your woods, leaving the healthiest looking hickories standing. They will benefit from the reduced competition for sunlight.

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