Hickory, Chicory, Dock

Think for a moment about the origins of the various culinary and medicinal purposes to which plants have been put over the millennia. For every fruit, nut, leaf, berry, etc. that became food or medicine for us at some point in history or prehistory, somebody initially served as the “guinea pig.” That is, somebody in a particular tribe was the first to try ingesting taro root, for example (better known as elephant ears). Said guinea pig survived (in this case), and others followed suit. Through a less fortunate guinea pig, people learned that foxglove didn’t make for a very good snack!

Conversely, however, we eventually discovered that digitalis (an ingredient derived from foxglove) could aid those with heart problems. Of course, our use of medicinal plants isn’t always so dramatic; and edibles sometimes merely widen our array of culinary options, rather than providing us with staples. Thus the juice of yellow dock can relieve the rash caused by stinging nettles, while chicory can be used as a coffee substitute.

In pondering such discoveries, I can’t help but wonder at how different life must have been in those bygone ages. Nowadays, we dissect computer applications, trying to learn how they work. But in those days, the same amount of energy must have gone into discovering everything possible about our botanical neighbors. In the days before supermarkets and medical clinics, it behooved you to find out what was edible around you, what could be used to treat an injury on the spot. Whether it was edible weeds you could eat during a famine or plants that would staunch blood after a battle, such as yarrow, plant knowledge could save your life.

Trees, of course, have been among our greatest benefactors in this regard. E.g., the “salic” in the technical name for aspirin, “acetylsalicylic acid,” derives from Salix, the name for the willow genus, which is aspirin’s ancient source (think Salix discolor, the adorable “pussy willow“). Trees are better known, however, for their culinary gifts. Let’s consider one fruit tree and one nut tree:

To gauge the impression apple trees have made on our taste buds, simply consider how celebrated they have been in legend and song (think Garden of Eden, Johnny Appleseed, Little Green Apples), in idioms and mottoes (“apple of my eye,” “an apple a day”), and even in the naming of companies (Apple Computers).

Less celebrated are the hickory trees. And no, it’s not all about the nuts. When I consider reasons to plant shagbark hickory trees in the yard, harvesting the nuts may actually come in third on the list. I’m most impressed with the solid standing this tree holds in the fall foliage community. Another feature that stands out is the shedding bark, which affords visual interest in the winter landscape.

You’d have to be nuts not to appreciate the aesthetic features of hickory trees!

Shellbark Hickory

David Beaulieu

David Beaulieu's career as a landscape and garden writer builds on a decade of prior work with landscaping plants in the nursery business, and on a lifelong love of plants of all kinds. David currently writes a blog for about.com about Do It Yourself "Landscape Design"


  1. Astounding blog, where did you come up with the info in this posting? Im lucky that I came across it. i’ll be checking out back quickly to find out what other posts you’ve got.

  2. >”Where did you come up with the info in this posting?”

    Basically, it comes from decades of playing Euell Gibbons. I’ve maintained a moderate interest in living off the land for quite some time now. Nothing too serious, which is why I describe it as “moderate.” But my interest has been great enough to motivate me to dip into untold numbers of books, magazines and websites on the subject, in addition to chatting with old-timers out in the country.

  3. The Shellbark NUT that you show is the nut on my tree. Is this nut edible? The Squirrels love them and so do the Deer. Can we eat them?
    This tree is some where close to 50ft high.
    My Father in law called it a Pig Hickory tree You are calling it a Shellbark Hickory.

  4. According to the USDA and NRCS the Shellbark nut is edible and has a sweet taste. The PigNut (C. glabra) is also edible, but has a bitter taste. Not sure what you have since you mentioned both. Here is an overview of both from Vanderbilt.

    Carya laciniosa (shellbark hickory or kingnut hickory): the largest of any hickory [in the area], 4.5 to 6.5 cm long and 3.8 cm broad, occurring singly or in pairs; thick husk splitting readily into segments when ripe; nut flattened, ridged; shell very thick and hard; kernel sweet.

    Carya glabra (pignut hickory): approximately 2.5 cm long and 2 cm wide, pear-shaped (narrows at the base); husk thin, dark brown, only slightly splitting into segments if at all; nuts broadest near the apex, narrowed at the base; thick shell; kernel insipid or bitter.

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