Harvesting hickory nuts is a family tradition in many of our regions. The majority of the types of hickory tree are found native to North America. In fact, only three species of hickory are found outside the United States. This makes the hickory nut a national treasure and one that should be enjoyed by all citizens. This isn’t such a hard leap to make considering that many of our forests have large populations of wild hickory trees.
A casual stroll in your local forest may find you surrounded by several types of hickory and their attending nut crop. Hickory nut harvesting is a fun, family activity that will provide you with a supply of these high protein nuts to last through the winter.
Hickory trees have dense, sweet nuts that are reminiscent of mild walnuts. The nut meat is hard to get to because of the hard, thick shells, but once you finally get a taste of these buttery nuts you’ll be hooked. The trees are also sources of sap that can be cooked down for a syrup, much like maple trees and for their wood, both for tools and for smoking foods.
If you are lucky enough to live in a region with hickory trees, grab a heavy sack and some hiking boots and learn how to harvest hickory nut trees. The beautiful autumn walk and vigorous crisp air are only part of the reward. Pounds of rich nuts can be a part of your winter diet practically for free.
Fall is when you may find forest floors littered with thick hickory nut shells. The brown to gray hard husked nuts are ripe in autumn and will start raining down during storms and windy periods. You can also try shaking a tree for a bounty of nuts, but be careful about standing right under your harvest, as you might take a hard knock on your head for your efforts.
In areas of the eastern United States, hickory trees are common in mixed forests. There are some species that are used as public use plants in parks and open spaces but most are in deciduous and mixed forests in the wild. Hickories have a bumper crop about every three years, but each year will see some production.
The nuts are heavy and oily so a thick, heavy duty sack or crate is recommended. Once you find a hickory grove, harvesting is a snap. Check the ground nuts for any that are intact except for a slight crack. Pick up those that are relatively unblemished and have no rotten spots.
Remove husks as you harvest to allow them to compost back into the earth and enrich the soil around the tree. The ideal nut will have a brownish gray husk and the interior shell will be a rich chestnut brown.
If you are in a densely treed area with larger trees protecting the hickory, you may have to shake the plant to remove the nuts. Be cautious about climbing trees to shake them.
Once you have your bounty, properly storing hickory nuts will ensure they last a long time. Separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, by putting the nuts in buckets of water. Discard any that float. The nut meats will not be edible.
Lay recently harvested nuts out in a warm area to completely dry. Once nuts are dry, usually after a couple of weeks, you can hold them in a cool area (like the basement or a root cellar) for up to a month, as long as the area is dry and the nuts get good air flow. Alternatively, you may shell the nuts and freeze the nut meats for months.
One of the most obvious hickory nut uses is to simply eat them out of hand. Shelling can prove to be a challenge, but once you get into the sweet buttery meat, you’ll have trouble halting your snacking. Nutmeats are useful in any recipe calling for pecans or walnuts. You can also soak the nutmeats in brined water and then roast them for salty crunchy flavor. They can also be roasted in a low oven but the flavor isn’t as rich as directly roasted meats.
If you are going on a shelling spree to store or freeze the nut meats, don’t throw away those shells. They are high in oils but hard as rocks and burn slowly and evenly. Add them to the fireplace for a delicate hickory scent or throw them on the BBQ to add subtle hickory flavor to meats.
Steve Nix is a member of the Society of American Foresters and a former forest resources analyst for the state of Alabama.
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Of the dozen or so American hickories, shellbark and shagbark hickory trees have shown some promise as edible nut producers. These are the only two Carya species (with the exception of pecan, scientific name Carya illinoensis) typically planted for nut production. All the following hickory nut suggestions apply as well to the collection and preparation of pecans.
After shagbark hickory trees are old enough to bear fruit they will produce hickory nuts in three year cycles. Year 1 the tree will yield a massive bounty of hickory nuts, sometimes as much as 70 liters of nuts from a single tree. That many nuts will nearly fill up four 5 gallon buckets with hickory nuts, without the green hull (that should break away off the nutshell when it falls from the tree). You will be competing with the squirrels and other wildlife that also want this delicious food, so chances are you won’t see everything that falls.
Year 2 your hickory tree will produce a light to moderate amount of nuts, as much as 40 liters of hickory nuts per tree. Especially since this year your crop will be much lower than the year before, be more diligent in harvesting nuts. The most nuts will fall on a windy day or rainy day, when you have those elements of weather shaking those the hickory nut hulls from the tree.
Year 3 it will not produce any hickory nuts at all, so make sure you have plenty stored away from year 2 to get past this dry spell. Sometimes it’s possible for the tree to bear a small amount of fruit in this year, but in my experience it normally will not bear fruit in this year. This three year cycle is then repeated again and again for many years.
There are six species of Carya that make up the most common hickories found in North America. They come from three major groups called shagbark (which has shaggy bark), pignut (which rarely has shaggy bark), and the pecan group. The shaggy bark is a clear identifier to separate the shagbark group from the pignut group, though some older hickories have slightly scaly bark.
Hickories have a nutritious nut meat that is covered by a very hard shell, which is in turn covered by a splitting husk shell (as opposed to a larger walnut that drops with a complete husk cover). This fruit is located at the twig tips in clusters of three to five. Search for them for under a tree to help in identification. They have branching flowering catkins just below the emerging new leaf umbrella-like dome in spring. Not all are eaten by humans.
The leaves of hickory are mostly alternately placed along the twig, in contrast to a similar-looking ash tree leaf that is in an opposite arrangement. The hickory leaf is always pinnately compound, and the individual leaflets can be finely serrated or toothed.
What do hickory nuts offer nutritionally?
Based on data from the NCC Food and Nutrient Database (NCCDB), here are the nutritional values per ounce (28-gram) serving of hickory nuts (2).
The daily values for each vitamin and mineral have been calculated using the FDA’s latest published daily values.
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Fat is the main macronutrient in hickory nuts most of this fat content is monounsaturated fat. The primary fatty acid is oleic acid (3).
List of related literature:
Considering that nuts are somewhat expensive, storing them properly is a must.
If their moisture contents are reduced to around 10 to 15%, nuts can be stored at below-freezing temperatures.
The best way to store shelled nuts is in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer.
All nuts should be stored in the freezer or refrigerator.
Nuts should be used in generous amounts, usually around 10% (w/w), and kept in large pieces.