Shellbark Hickory, The Largest Hickory Leaves

Carya laciniosa, A Top 100 Common Tree in North America

Shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa) is also called big shagbark hickory, bigleaf shagbark hickory, kingnut, big shellbark, bottom shellbark, thick shellbark, and western shellbark, attesting to some of its characteristics.

It is very similar to the beautiful shagbark hickory or Carya ovata and has a range more limited and central distribution than shagbark. It is much larger in proportion, however, and some intermediate trees are thought to be C. dunbarii which is a hybrid of the two species. The tree is more typically associated with bottomland sites or similarly with sites with rich soil. 

It is a slow-growing long-lived tree, hard to transplant because of its long taproot, and subject to insect damage. The nuts, largest of all hickory nuts, are sweet and edible. Wildlife and people harvest most of them; those remaining produce seedling trees readily. The wood is hard, heavy, strong, and very flexible, making it a favored wood for tool handles.

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The Images of Shellbark Hickory

Shellbark Hickory Bark. Chris Evans, University of Illinois, provides several images of parts of shellbark hickory. The tree is a hardwood and the lineal taxonomy is Magnoliopsida > Juglandales > Juglandaceae > Carya laciniosa - a member of the walnut family of trees.

Shellbark hickory has light grey smooth bark when young but turning to flat plates in maturity, pulling away from the trunk and bending away on both ends. Shagbark hickory bark pulls away younger with shorter, wider plates.

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The Silviculture of Shellbark Hickory

Shellbark Hickory. R. Merrilees, Illustration

Shellbark hickory grows best on deep, fertile, moist soils, most typical of the order Alfisols. It does not thrive in heavy clay soils but grows well on heavy loams or silt loams. Shellbark hickory requires moister situations than do pignut, mockernut, or shagbark hickories (Carya glabra, C. tomentosa, or C. ovata), although it is sometimes found on dry, sandy soils. Specific nutrient requirements are not known, but generally the hickories grow best on neutral or slightly alkaline soils.

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The Range of Shellbark Hickory

Range of Shellbark Hickory
Range of Shellbark Hickory. USFS

Shellbark hickory is has a sizable range and distribution but is not a common tree in large number on specific sites. The actual range is significant and extends from western New York through southern Michigan to southeast Iowa, south through eastern Kansas into northern Oklahoma, and eastward through Tennessee into Pennsylvania.

According to the United States Forest Service publication  This species is most prominent in the lower Ohio River region and south along the Mississippi River to central Arkansas. It is frequently found in the great river swamps of central Missouri and the Wabash River region in Indiana and Ohio. 

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Shellbark Hickory at Virginia Tech

Shellbark Hickory Bark. Chris Evans, University of Illinois,

Leaf: Alternate, pinnately compound with 5 to 9 (usually 7 leaflets), 15 to 24 inches long, each leaflet obovate to lanceolate, dark-green above, paler and tomentose below. The rachis is stout and may be tomentose.

Twig: Stout, yellowish brown, usually glabrous, numerous lenticels, leaf scar three-lobed; terminal bud elongated (larger than shagbark) with numerous persistent, brown scales.

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Your Citation
Nix, Steve. "Shellbark Hickory, The Largest Hickory Leaves." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, Nix, Steve. (2021, September 3). Shellbark Hickory, The Largest Hickory Leaves. Retrieved from Nix, Steve. "Shellbark Hickory, The Largest Hickory Leaves." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).