Laura Dean Bennett
Just a few weeks ago, the leaves of the shagbark hickory trees were glowing golden along the edge of my woods, and their nuts are keeping the squirrels busy.
I’ve always admired the shagbarks, even before I knew anything about them.
With those unusual, “shaggy” strips of bark, it’s easy to see how the shagbark hickory got its name.
Shagbark hickory trees are found throughout Pocahontas County and through most of the Eastern United States and some Midwestern states.
There are five other varieties of hickory trees besides the shagbark – shellbark, bitternut, pignut, mockernut and pecan.
Shagbark is the easiest to identify because of that tell-tale “peeling” shaped bark.
Hickories are members of the walnut family, and they have long provided food for both humans and wildlife.
Their outer husks are very hard and almost impossible to crack, but when ripe, the husks split open and make it easier to get to the edible part.
Black bears, foxes, mice, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits and a number of birds enjoy the delicious nuts every fall.
They are the preferred food of squirrels and provide between five and 10 percent of the diet of eastern chipmunks.
I’ve even heard tell of some dogs trying to chew them.
Yes, hickories are useful indeed.
The foliage of hickory trees is browsed by deer when other food is scarce.
And the trunks are used by some bats, who make their homes in the snug crevices beneath the loose bark.
Hickory wood makes an excellent source of heat for our homes and is an excellent charcoal-producing wood.
It has a high heat value – it burns evenly, and produces a long-lasting steady heat.
And it gives food a wonderful hickory-smoked flavor.
Think about it – where would we be without hickory smoked bacon?
Hickory wood is known for its strength, and no commercial species of wood is equal to its strength and hardness.
Andrew Jackson, who was a major general during the War of 1812 and our seventh U.S. president, was nicknamed “Old Hickory” because he was said to be as tough as a hickory tree.
Commercial uses for hickory lumber are many.
It’s used to make furniture, flooring and tool handles.
Its strength and shock resistance make it suitable for specialty products such as ladder rungs, dowels, athletic goods and gymnasium equipment.
Shagbark hickories are usually scattered throughout a forest of oaks, pines and maples.
They are sometimes plant-ed as ornamental shade trees, but they are very slow growers (they take 40 years to reach maturity and start producing nuts) and their tendency to shed may turn off some homeowners.
The average height of a shagbark hickory is between 60 and 80 feet, but they can reach a height of 120 feet.
Their average lifespan is 200 years, but some longer-lived shagbarks can continue to produce their seeds (nuts) until 300 years of age.
Shagbark hickory has other uses, too.
The fresh, young shoots of the foliage has been steamed to make an inhalant for treating headaches.
A decoction of the bark has been taken internally to treat rheumatism and also used as a poultice for rheumatic joints.
We all know they are flavorful and sweet and can be baked in muffins, cakes and pies.
For a shagbark hickory pie, just substitute shagbark nuts (or any hickory nuts) for the pecans in a pecan pie recipe.
Like other hickory nuts, they can be ground into a meal and used to thicken soups or bake bread.
A hickory nut “milk” can also be made from the nuts which can be used as a spread on bread or a glaze on vegetables.
Hickory nuts ripen in late autumn and can be stored for up to two years in a cool, dry cellar if you’re too busy to grind them or bake with them right away.
And the sap of the shagbark hickory is sweet, too.
Like maple sap, it is tapped in the spring and can be made into a syrup.
Shagbark hickory syrup is one of those old-timey things that no one hears about anymore.
At least I had never heard of it.
It’s made by boiling the bark.
And you can make a coffee-like drink from the bark, too.
I came across an old recipe you might want to keep in mind while you’re gathering your hickory nuts this fall.
Shagbark Hickory Syrup
Gather a basket full of bark from a hickory tree, knock off any bugs and wash them clean.
Break it into small pieces.
Roast the bark in the oven, then make a decoction by soaking the bark in several inches of very hot water heated to just before boiling. Do not boil, do not even simmer.
After the water turns dark, remove the bark from the water, strain the liquid and return it to the pot.
Continue to decoct until it is an even darker color. Add a pinch of cream of tartar to keep it from crystallizing.
For each cup, add two cups of sugar. Stir until completely dissolved. Remove from heat.
While still hot, pour into prepared jars and use the canning process to seal.
Enjoy as you would any syrup and especially enjoy bragging that you made it yourself!