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Carya laciniosa

Shellbark Hickory

Origin:  West to Iowa and Kansas, east to Ohio, West Virginia. North to southern Michigan and south to Tennessee. Pockets in Pennsylvania, New York, and southern Ontario.
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Shellbark Hickory has the largest nut of the Hickory family – hence it is often referred to as the kingnut tree. The mature Shellbark Hickory tree produces large amounts of nuts which are edible and have a variety of ethnobotanical uses. One surprising use of the nuts is treatment of cuts. The Shellbark is very hardy, withstanding low temperatures and tolerating wetlands. It is a strong and reliable tree. In autumn, the shellbark typically has brilliant yellow and gold leaves.

Michael Pascoe, NDP., ODH., CLT., MSc. (Plant Conservation)


Tree (deciduous)
USDA Hardiness Zone
5 - 9
Canadian Hardiness Zone
2a - 7a
RHS Hardiness Zone
H5 - H7
Temperature (°C)
-10 - (-20)
Temperature (°F)
14 - (-4)
19 - 26 m
15 - 22 m
Description and Growing Information
Flowering Period
General Description
Shellbark Hickory has exfoliating, shaggy-looking bark, growing tall with high branches. This species has the largest nut of all the hickories. The nut is edible and sweet to the taste. It has dark green to yellow serrated leaves. Unlike its close relative, Carya ovata (shagbark hickory), it does not have hairs on the tips of its leaf`s teeth.
The Shellbark hickory is planted in wetlands and bottomlands, as they like wet, loamy soils. They are often planted for lumber and their edible nuts. These trees are pest and salt tolerant. Mature trees drop large amounts of seeds in the autumn. Their leaves have a pinkish colour after new growth in the spring but becomes dark green in late spring and golden/yellow in autumn.
Shellbarks prefer to be in wet loamy soils. They can tolerate full sun to partial sun but prefer partial sun for young trees.
Shelbarks have a slender single trunk and a narrow oblong crown.
ID Characteristic
The Shellbark has seven leaflets that are pinnately compound and are 10 - 24 cm long. All hickories, including the Shellbark have long tap roots. Most Shellbarks do not produce nuts until they are forty years old. Significant nut production begins at seventy-five years. The Shellbark closely resembles the Shagbark hickory - both having shaggy bark and compound leaves although the Shagbark usually has only five leaflets.
Shellbark is relatively pest-tolerant. All hickories species suffer damage from hickory shuckworm and pecan weevil. The weevil attacks the nuts, eating the nut kernel. Shellbarks are hosts to a variety of fungi that feed on leaves and create deformities.
The Shellbark hickory is a very hardy tree, tolerant of frost and cold temperatures. It thrives in wetlands and bottom lands throughout the north-eastern United States of America.
Bark/Stem Description
The bark is "shaggy” looking, long and exfoliating reddish-grey bark with long and platy narrow trunks.
Flower/Leaf Bud Description
Shellbark hickories have the largest terminal bud, next to the horse chestnut.
Leaf Description
The leaves are dark green with seven leaflets, compared to the Shagbark which has only five leaflets. Leaves are pinnate and alternate, compound, and usually 30 - 60 cm long. In autumn, leaves are a brilliant yellow/gold.
Flower Description
The flower colour is usually yellow or gold, appearing after the first leaves emerge in late May to June.
Fruit Description
The fruit has a green hull containing a light brown nut. The nuts are round and flattened, about 25 - 30 mm in diameter and 15 - 20 mm thick.
Colour Description
Shellbark leaves have a green to dark-green colour in spring and summer months. In autumn, they turn to a brilliant yellow and gold colour, depending on environmental factors such as pest control and soil composition
Texture Description
Notable Specimens
The University of Guelph has a number of Shellbark hickories in their arboretum for a research project The University of Guelph Arboretum, Guelph, Ontario, Canada).
The nuts are usually planted in late autumn to allow for cold-day stratification to aid germination, 90 - 120 days is the norm. The Shellbark begins producing fertile seeds at about forty years, but does not produce large quantities of seeds until seventy five years. There has been great success with grafting and budding. Tree nurseries (such as Grimo Nut Nursery) graft to northern pecan rootstock, resulting in higher survival rates and trees that produce nuts sooner. It is not known if Shellbark hickories produce roots from cuttings.
Ethnobotanical Uses (Disclaimer)
Deodorant, astringent, dressing for cuts, sore-mouth treatment, tool handles, lumber, and edible nuts.