Pignut Hickory

Carya glabra

pignut hickory

Pignut hickory, photographed at Blue Spring State Park, Orange City, Volusia County, in May 2023.

We’d be tempted to say that Pignut hickory, Carya glabra, is the Rodney Dangerfield* of hickory species. It just doesn’t get any respect. But that’s not quite true. It just doesn’t get as much respect as other hickory species do.

Pignut hickory makes a fine shade tree when planted in the right spot and the wood is useful in myriad ways. Yet the species goes a little under our radar.

Maybe the problem is with the name. Pignut, after all, isn’t exactly inspiring. Doesn’t exactly make you want to munch on a handful of nuts — maybe just the opposite — nor rush out to your nearest nursery so as to plant one in your yard.

We should mention the taste of the nuts is controversial at best — some say they’re bitter, best left to wildlife, others (seemingly a minority) say that they’re just as sweet as any hickory nut sold commercially.

Disrespected or not, unfortunate name nor not, pignut hickory is a Florida native, one that barely sneaks into South Florida but is more common elsewhere in the state. The Institute for Regional Conservation in Delray Beach lists it as present in only one conservation site, in Lee County, and considers it imperiled within South Florida.

Its range extends over most of the eastern United States, from Maine to Illinois, south to Texas and eastward into Florida. It sneaks across the border into Ontario.

Within Florida, pignut hickory can be found through the Panhandle and into the Peninsula as far south as Charlotte and Brevard counties, according to most sources. (Again, the IRC puts it slightly farther south into Lee County.)

The U.S. Forest Service describes Pignut hickory as “common but not abundant” throughout its range. It is most plentiful within the Ohio River basin, and the most common hickory found within the Appalachian Mountains.

Pignut hickory is a tall, graceful tree typically 50 to 65 feet tall, capable of hitting 120 feet, with a spread of 30 or 40 feet and a trunk diameter of 39 inches. It has a dense crown, perfect for a shade tree.

Its leaves are compound and arranged alternately along branches. Each leaf is eight to 12 inches long with five or seven leaflets each of which are three to six inches long. Pignut hickory is deciduous, meaning it drops its leaves in the fall. However, before dropping, the leaves turn bright yellow.

The bark is gray-brown, smooth when young — one of its other common names is smoothbark hickory — but develops ridges as it matures. But even with the ridges, it’s still smooth compared with the aptly named shagbark hickory mentioned below.

Pignut hickory has separate male and female flowers each arranged on a drooping “spike” or cluster called a catkin. Male flowers are yellow, females are green, both genders spectacularly unspectacular, which is no problem, since pollination is by wind rather than by insect or bird. Spring is bloom time.

The fruit, of course, is a nut wrapped in a large four-sectioned round or pear-shaped husk that ripens in the fall. When ripe, the husk splits open along the seams of the sections — technically called valves — about half way down its length, revealing the nutty treat inside. The nuts have a high fat content, which makes them perfect for animals getting ready for winter.

The lengthy list of animals that enjoy feasting on pignut includes fox squirrels, eastern gray squirrels, chipmunks, black bears, pocket mice and rabbits. Among our avian friends looking for a good meal: wood ducks, wild turkeys, blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and a lot more.

Hogs like them too. So much so that, according to one theory, it’s the inspiration for the name, pignut, which dates back to colonial times when farmers would let their swine roam freely in the woods. Pignut would be one of the foods readily available to them.Theory two: the inner structure of a pignut resembles the structure of a pig’s snout, hence pignut. You pick. Both seem plausible to us and maybe both are true.

And we humans like them, too, or at least some of us do. Some say the nuts are bitter, others sweet. Pignut hickory is grown commercially in some parts of the country, but on a limited basis. The primary commercial sources of hickory nuts are the shagbark hickory, C. ovata, mentioned above, shellbark hickory, C. laciniosa, and the mockernut hickory, C. tomentosa. (Pecans are members of Carya, but from a culinary standpoint, at least, deserve to be in a category apart from hickories.)

It grows primarily in oak-hickory and other hardwood forests, taking to sites with full or part sun and well-drained acidic soils. It is drought tolerant. The branches are wind resistant and ice resistant. The first trait is rather important for a tree in South Florida; the second, not so much.

Pignut hickory wood is described as heavy, hard, tough and elastic. It’s been used to make tool handles, broom handles — the inspiration for another of its common names — skis, wagon wheels and, once upon a time, automobile parts. Its density makes a good wood to smoke meat and fish.

One interesting tidbit: hickory tree species date back to the Tertiary Period, between 66 million and 2.6 million years ago. Geologists have found fossils in Washington and Colorado as well as other parts of the world.

Carya comes from the Greek Karya, meaning nut tree. Glabra means hairless or smooth, and refers to the underside of the leaves.

Other common names for pignut hickory include broom hickory, swamp hickory, sweet pignut, smoothbark hickory, coast pignut hickory, pignut and false shagbark. It is a member of Juglandaceae, the walnut family.

*Those of a certain age know who Rodney Dangerfield was and are familiar with his catch phrase. For those who are younger, he was a comedian who made a considerable living with a standup act and in movies by claiming that “I don’t get no respect.”

Blue Spring State Park

Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.