Web Content Viewer
Web Content Viewer

Shellbark Hickory

Shellbark Hickory (Carya laciniosa), a slow-growing but potentially massive tree scattered throughout Ohio, is often found in moist bottomlands where Shagbark Hickory usually does not grow. Like other hickories, its heavy, dense, strong, yet elastic wood is sought after for making tool handles, athletic equipment, furniture, construction timbers, and firewood, and its wood chips are utilized in the smoking of meats. Its sweet, huge nuts are relished by squirrels and give it an alternative common name of King Nut Hickory, due to their being the largest of the hickories.

A native to the Midwestern United States and stretching into portions of the southern, eastern, and Great Plains states, Shellbark Hickory is a climax forest tree in moist soils, particularly along flood plains and bottomland areas. It grows to 80 feet tall by 40 feet wide when found in the open. As a member of the Walnut Family, it is related to other Hickories and the Walnuts.

Planting Requirements - Shellbark Hickory prefers deep, moist to occasionally wet, rich soils under sunny conditions, such as are found in bottomlands, flatlands that do not drain quickly, and floodplains. It tolerates shade in its youth, when it is stretching for sunlight beneath the canopy of taller trees, and develops its deep taproot system. Like other Hickories, it is very tolerant of summer drought, even though it prefers moist conditions. It is found in zones 5 to 8.

Potential Problems - Shellbark Hickory is virtually disease- and pest-free, although its leaflets become frayed by late summer due to minor pest feeding. However, it sends down a constant rain of leaflets, rachises, dead twigs, immature fruits, husks, and debris from squirrel feeding from mid-summer until late autumn, presenting a constant clean-up chore and mowing hazard when it is found in urban areas.

Identifying Features - Shellbark Hickory


Leaves of Shellbark Hickory are alternate and pinnately compound, one to two feet long, and almost always display seven wide leaflets (rarely five or nine), with fine serrations on their margins.

Spring and summer leaf color is medium green to dark yellow-green, while fall color is often faded green to chartruese, but sometimes a brilliant golden-yellow to yellow-brown in excellent seasons.


The stout twigs of Shellbark Hickory are orange-brown by the first winter and have terminal and lateral buds that are larger than most other trees, except possibly Horsechestnut. The first-year twigs are often the same width as compared to the terminal bud (as shown at upper) but this is not always true. Shellbark Hickory has the largest leaf scars on its twigs as compared to any other Hickory.

New Growth

Shellbark Hickory usually emerges with bronzed leaves (pinkish in color) in spring, and the base of the new growth may have reflexed winter bud scales that hang on for one or more years. These traits are especially evident on young saplings. Male and female flowers of Shellbark Hickory occur on the same tree and thus this and other Hickories are monoecious. Three-branched staminate (male) catkins droop from the previous year's twig growth, while pistillate (female) flowering spikes occur at the terminus of the current season's growth. Flowering occurs in mid-spring.


The fruits of Shellbark Hickory (the largest of the hickories) are composed of an inner sweet kernel, surrounded by a hard bony shell with four to six ribs, surrounded by a thick outer elongated husk that splits into four quarters when ripe. The nuts are relished by squirrels, and the large fruits make quite a thud when they fall to the ground intact.


The gray bark of Shellbark Hickory has flat ridges and shallow furrows when young and looks exactly like that of Shagbark Hickory at this stage. Most trees do not develop the peeling character of Shagbark Hickory, and their mature bark barely shows signs of this trait, having scaly ridges and moderate furrows instead. However, some Shellbark Hickories have exfoliating mature bark that mimics or even exceeds the shaggy character of their more common cousin.


The Walnut Family

Bitternut Hickory

Black Walnut


Shagbark Hickory

Shellbark Hickory