Shag Bark Hickory Nuts

Shag Bark Hickory nuts

The woods around the farm are filled with Shagbark Hickory trees.  I often find the  shells opened,  the nuts eaten by animals.  Today I found these two green nuts side by side.  I’ve never eaten the nuts although I’ve been told by some of my readers that they’re tasty.

I just read that the wood from Shagbarks is very hard and was used to make tool handles and wheel spindles.

It made me think about how the trees were probably harvested, around the time our farmhouse was built in the 1840s, for these purposes.  There are a few very big ones growing in the meadows where animals used to graze.  I’m sure they nuts were harvested too.

Like the apple trees that grow wild in the pasture and woods, the stone walls, piles of rocks and even the dump filled with bottles and tinware, the woods are filled with signs of the people who used to live here.



The Orphaned Woods: My Friend The Shagbark Hickory

“ our self-importance, in our search for meaning, we have forgotten how to share the planet that gave us life.”  Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

If someone were to cut down the trees in the Orphaned Woods and make a housing development or shopping center,  they would probably call it something like Hickory Woods or Hickory Hill Mall.

As much as I don’t want to, I can’t help thinking this way.  It comes from growing up on Long Island,  seeing houses and shopping centers squeezed onto every scrap of land no matter how small.

Fortunately, this kind of development hasn’t reached our little corner of Upstate NY yet. (Although I’m superstitiously knocking on wood, as I write this).

It’s not that the Shagbark Hickory dominates The Orphaned Woods, but they are so distinctive and so plentiful, that they were the first trees I took notice of when we moved here.

And there was one in particular, that I befriended right away.  Three Shagbark Hickorys, no doubt sharing the same root system.  The center one with a gaping hole, big enough for me to sit in if I could only reach it.

I’ve stopped at it so many times, Fate now runs ahead of me and waits beside it, till I get there.

My first friend in The Orphaned Woods.

Young or old, there’s no mistaking the bark of the Shagbark Hickory.  It only gets thicker and more layered with age.  It has a compound leaf.  Five almond-shaped leaves to a stalk. And its fruit is the hickory nut.

I read that the word Hickory is from the Native American word pawcohiccora which is the hickory milk that is used to make corn cake and hominy.  The milk comes from pounding and steeping the nuts.

The wood from the Shagbark Hickory is incredibly hard and was used to make wagon wheels and tool handles. I can imagine it would have been a valuable tree to the original people who lived here as well as the farmers who build our house.

I’ve written about the Shagbark Hickory before, which inspired so many of you to tell me your stories about gathering, cracking, and eating Hickory nuts.  Before that, I hadn’t thought of eating them myself.

The outer thick green shells and inner hard brown shells litter the floor of the woods.  But most of the nuts have already been eaten by the animals who live in the woods.

The outer shell of the hickory nut and you can see a part of the leaf just above it.

About a month ago, before the snow was hard on the ground, I found a whole nut and put it in my pocket.  At home,  I cracked it open by putting it on a cutting board and hitting it with a rolling pin.  I picked out the nut with the tine of a fork.

Even if I had a nutcracker I don’t know that it would have been strong enough to open the shell.  Marsha told me that her mother-in-law used to put a bag of Hickory nuts under the wheel of her car and drive over them to crack the shells. Josie said her father used a hammer.

The nut I ate looked like a small walnut but was chewier.  It tasted closer to a pecan with a touch of nutmeg. I learned later that it is in the Walnut family of trees along with the pecan.

The inner shell of a halved hickory nut, chewed probably by a mouse.

Once I found out what a hickory nut looked like, I started seeing them everywhere.  There are even some old shells in the basement of the farmhouse, brought in by mice.

There are two Shagbark Hickorys, like sentries, to the right of the tumbled rocks in the stone wall that I step on to enter the woods.  There’s a circle of four of them on the border of the woods and the pasture to the south.  There are many more, big and small scattered throughout The Orphaned Woods.

I supposed I could have called the woods, The Shagbark Hickory Woods instead of The Orphaned Woods.  But that reminds me too much of the housing development or mall.  Because there are really so many different kinds of trees in the woods.  It’s just that my unknowing eye was drawn to the most obvious, outstanding tree.

It did get my attention though.  It drew me in and was my first friend in the woods.  And now, since I feel like I know it so well,  it also made me curious about all the other trees that grow around it.

Meeting My Neighbor, The Shagbark Hickory

My neighbor, the Shagbark Hickory

I heard the gun shot as Fate and I walked thought the pasture to the gate that leads into the woods.

It came from our neighbors house.  I assumed they were slaughtering one of their pigs.

When we first moved to the farm, three of our neighbors pigs got out and were rooting around in our front yard.  Red helped herd them back to their pen.   A few months later, our neighbor came over with bacon and ham to thank us.

Once we got over the stream, the gunshots didn’t stop.  Target practice, I thought.   So instead of taking our usual path, which is close to and often through our neighbors property, we headed in the opposite direction towards the meadow.

I’ve only walked in the meadow a couple of times.  It rests between our farm and McMillan Road.  In the spring, summer and fall, it’s tight with brambles, tall grasses and ticks.  The time of year, the ticks are dormant, the grasses are laid down with snow and the brambles are thinner and easy to pass through.

Jon and I often walk the dogs on McMillan Road and sometimes Fate will run into the meadow on a scent, but she never goes far.    There’s an old wooden trough, disintegrating along the fence line, where the cows who used to graze in the meadow, were fed.

There are brambles and bushes, but even though there haven’t been cows in the meadow for years, there is still only one tree.

From the road it looks perfectly shaped as those big old trees that farmers let grow in the pastures for shelter often are.  Unencumbered by other trees, they’re able to reach their branches out evenly on all sides.

Jon and I often admire the tree, it has grace and presence, is witness and sentinel to the land surrounding it.

Always seen from a distance, I never imagined how big the tree really was.

Even when I decided to visit the tree yesterday, I wasn’t thinking it would look so different close up.  So what a surprise it was to see that it wasn’t a Maple as I always assumed, but a massive Shag Bark Hickory.

First I walked around it marveling at the long thick shards of bark bowing off of it.   Then I spread my arms around it in a hug, my fingertips reaching as far at they could, all of me only spanning a third of its circumference.

I’ve been looking at this tree from a distance for over four years.  I thought I knew it.

But being close to it. Walking around it, touching it, looking up into its branches, I knew I was only seeing a small part of it from a distance.

It was like when the first time I stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon looking into it.  It looked like every postcard I’ve ever seen of the Grand Canyon.  Like I was looking at a mural of the Grand Canyon.  I knew the only way I could really “see” the Grand Canyon was to get down into it, walk it, be a part of it.

That’s just what I did with the Shagbark Hickory yesterday. I got to know it, to see it for who it really is, not what I imagined it to be.  I thought of us being neighbors all these years and only now, really getting to know each other for the first time.


Notes From The Woods, The Woodcock and the Hickory

Wild Geranium

The woods welcome me with a green hug, birdsong, and wildflowers.  Grass sprouts like a million fountains, soft and generous,  sprinkled with wild geraniums.

I take a step and a woodcock whistles up to the sky, orange,  bronze, and as shiny as if its feathers are cut from metal.

The old Shagbark Hickory is sprouting leaves. I hold onto the scaly bark, one piece in each hand, and sway back and forth as the wind blows high above me, as if I were a newborn leaf too.

Golden Ragwort

Stories From The Woods. A Handful Of Hickory Nuts


Zinnia feasting on scat left on a pile of rocks the farmer pulls from the field every spring.

The corn came first.  A perfectly shaped single kernel in shades of yellow and white with a touch of pink at its root.   It was under a pine tree in the woods.  A squirrel or chipmunk must have brought it from the neighboring cornfield and dropped it as if foreshadowing my walk.

Maybe it gave me the idea to head out of the woods and step over the low, spindly barbed wire fence into my neighbor’s abandoned cow pasture. The pasture that is covered with tall grasses, stocky bushes, and rock sprouting a variety of pale green and gray lichen.

I always feel like I’m on top of a mountain when I walk there.

Fate and Zinnia roam freely, but I stay on the deer trails as they climb up the hill, then wind back down it. Soon I’m stepping over a crumbling rock wall into the cornfield. I leave my boot prints in patches of melting snow and mud between rows of cut corn stalks on tepee roots.

When I get to the big old shagbark hickory, I see the nuts.  They’re still their shell casings.  But unlike in the fall, when the casings are green and impossible to crack open, now they’re brown and fall apart in four thick even wedges when I pick them up.

Inside is a hard, beige, intact hickory nut.

I don’t know why no other animal has claimed these, but I pick up as many as I can find and put them in my pocket.  Then I make my way across the cornfield, through the woods, and back to the farm.

When I get home Jon is at his desk writing.  He stops to ask if I have any stories from the woods.  I reach into my pocket, pull out the nuts and put them in his hand.  I show him my story.

“What are they?” he asks.  With a smile, I tell him they are hickory nuts and we’ll feast on them tonight.

A handful of hickory nuts
Full Moon Fiber Art