I’ll give you one guess why it’s called Shagbark Hickory- and it’s not because it was the inspiration for 1970’s flooring. Its characteristic peeling, platy bark gives this tree four season interest no matter the location. Strong wood for timber and sweet nuts for wildlife make this tree a historic and contemporary staple of eastern North America. Seed-grown trees are notoriously difficult to transplant but our stock is specially trained and treated to develop a fibrous, easily transplanted root mass.
Shagbark Hickory is a large stature tree with large leaves and medium-sized nuts. While adaptable, its somewhat messy fruits have excluded it from our Urban Approved list. However, just because it won’t work in a 4-foot-wide terrace doesn’t mean it won’t thrive in a park, boulevard, backyard, or restoration area. Make sure the tree has plenty of room to grow if you want a symmetrical canopy. Otherwise, it’s more than happy to share space with other native trees. While Shagbark Hickory can tolerate partial shade, transplanting a tree grown in full sun to partial shade will lead to some canopy thinning.
If you’re planting in a partial sun site, I recommend starting with a smaller plant. If you want to see Shagbark Hickory in their natural habitat, a large stand can be found at the Scuppernong Trailhead in Dousman, Wisconsin. Just northwest of the parking lot, up the hill, you can find plenty of Shagbark Hickories interspersed in a Bigtooth Aspen colony. I recommend going in fall when the trail is bathed in gold from the surrounding trees.
Shagbark Hickory is a valuable food source for many animals. Birds and squirrels eat the catkins in spring. During the growing season, the wide range of insects feeding on the foliage and twigs creates a buffet for all manner of insectivores. Hickory nuts ripen in fall and provide food for chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, bobwhite quails, ducks, foxes, and black bears depending on where the tree is located. Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers feed on the tree and can reduce timber value in years of heavy feeding. However, this isn’t an issue for landscape trees as their value is in aesthetics, not wood quality.
Shagbark Hickory is a low-maintenance tree. Water as needed during the first year to establish a healthy root system. Protect the smooth bark of the young tree in fall and winter from deer damage. Mulch around the base, and you’re done! There is no maintenance needed beyond pruning every 3-5 years when young, then every 7-10 years once established. Work with a local arborist to determine a pruning schedule that meets your needs.
Oh, and don’t hit it with the lawnmower or weed whacker. That’s never good for a tree.
We invite you to check out the Arborist For Hire lookup at the Wisconsin Arborist Association website to find an ISA Certified Arborist near you.
Like any native plant, Shagbark Hickory is affected by a wide range of insects and diseases. However, few are fatal, and most are invisible to the untrained eye. Over 100 insect species feed on the tree, providing ample food to native birds. Anthracnose may defoliate parts of the tree in wet years but is not a frequent issue. Canker rot can be problematic, but this disease usually gets into Shagbark Hickory through wounds at the base. It’s easiest to avoid by keeping the trunk intact, and there is no treatment once the plant is infected. Crown gall, caused by bacteria, creates galls (tumors) on the trunk and roots. This disease can cause decline and death, and there is no reliable treatment. The best prevention for these ailments is to keep the tree happy and healthy. Stressed trees are always more susceptible to disease and insect woes.
Shagbark Hickory is also known as Scalybark or Carolina Hickory. Another common name of Shagbark is Shellbark Hickory, but this name is shared with the less common Carya laciniosa, also called Kingnut Hickory. Although their ranges overlap, Kingnut Hickory is more often found on bottomland sites while Shagbark is an upland tree. Kingnut also has more leaflets (5 to 9 instead of Shagbark’s 5 to 7), a larger fruit with less-pronounced husk segments, and orange lenticels on its twigs. And if you’re still confused, you can rest easy knowing that Kingnut Hickory is not found naturally in Wisconsin, making identification a breeze in our state.
Shagbark Hickory is a plastic species, meaning that its natural range encompasses a wide variety of climates and soils. The takeaway here is that not all Shagbark Hickory trees are created equally in terms of site tolerance. A southern genotype is better adapted to alluvial (floodplain) soils, while northern genotypes can tolerate a drier site. Additionally, trees that aren’t adapted to the local climate and soils may not provide the ecological benefits that a ‘true’ native tree can. Southern plants tend to flower later, which prevents their fruit from maturing in time for our falls. A prime example of this is Pecan trees (Carya illinoinensis) planted in Wisconsin. They will grow and survive even our toughest winters, but never fruit. However, I must add a disclaimer that this is all conjecture and best guesses- I don’t have any concrete, scientific evidence to definitively say that non-local Shagbark Hickory will not produce fruit in Wisconsin. If you want to experiment with non-local stock, go for it! No one ever advanced the field by doing the same thing as everyone else.
Shagbark Hickory is a member of Juglandaceae family and does produce a miniscule amount of Juglone. Is it enough to make me worried about where to plant a tree? Absolutely not. But if you plan on having a tomato garden around your hickory, you may be disappointed. While the levels of juglone exuded by hickory pale in comparison to Black Walnut, members of the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family, like tomatoes, are highly sensitive to juglone.
Like oaks, Shagbark Hickory develops a deep taproot from seed and is notoriously difficult to transplant. The taproot is vital to a forest tree, allowing it to store energy in preparation for a canopy opening. This isn’t as important when you’ve got a nursery tree growing at adequate spacing and minimal competition. Our Shagbark Hickories are given a custom treatment in our nursery to ensure a healthy, fibrous, easily transplanted root mass. Growing Shagbark Hickory from seed can be a rewarding activity at home if you have access to nuts. However, don’t expect them to enjoy or even survive being dug up and moved after planting.
Shagbark Hickory is restricted by fire. Its smooth bark when young is especially sensitive to fire damage, and even large trees can die from a wildfire. Commercially, Shagbark Hickory is valued for its dense, durable, flexible wood. Historically it was favored for use in wooden wheels, while today it’s a preferred choice for tool handles. The inner bark has been used to make a yellow dye, but don’t try this one on a landscape tree- remember, the inner bark is where growth happens, and damaging it will open the tree up to infection. Shagbark Hickory is also one of the best firewood sources, second only to Black Locust in energy per volume. And I would be remiss if I forgot to mention the wonderful flavor that Hickory chips can give in a smoker.
Continue the Shagbark lore by reading Mike Yanny’s article, A Tree For Me, Hickory.
Shagbark Hickory is extremely coarse in texture; not quite as much as Kentucky Coffeetree, but more than Maples and Oaks. Pairing fine-textured upright shrubs at the base is an excellent contrast year-round. Consider using Redtwig Dogwood, Little Devil or Dwarf Ninebark, Dwarf Bush Honeysuckle, and Glossy Black Chokeberry in a natural garden. Or, if you prefer a more formal look, use Violet Uprising Lilac, any Boxwood cultivar, or a creeper like Deutzia to add a more refined aesthetic to your space. I recommend making a bed as close to the drip-line as possible since it will help collect the leaf and nut litter the tree drops annually. You won’t have to spend your time raking husks out of the lawn, and you’ll have less lawn to mow- it’s a win-win in my book.