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All About Hickory Trees

Carya-glabra-3Pignut Hickory

Hickory, Dickory Dock…the Carya is in stock! Hickory (or Carya) is a great food source for several birds, mammals, and insects. They take a while to mature, which I think is their only downside and the reason people pass them up for other shade trees. There are several species to choose from, so matching one up to your needs and wants should be simple. Of course, they do mature to sizeable trees – like many oaks, maples and our other native canopy trees – so room to grow is a must. Still, they provide nice fall color, interesting bark, and are of great value to wildlife. Hickories are tap-rooted, so plant them where you can keep them and where future generations will enjoy their shade and benefits for decades to come.

At the time of this writing, we have saplings of several species; we have to bring them in as youngsters because more mature trees are next to impossible to find because tap rooted species don’t like to be confined to pots, nor do they transplant well as burlapped specimens. Here’s a brief guide to the advantages of each species:

Water Hickory (Carya aquatica) – as the name implies, this one’s tolerant of wetter soils

Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis) – this is the fastest-growing species

Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra) – this can be very long-lived and is the most shade-tolerant species

Pecan (Carya illinoinensis) – yes, Pecans are siblings to Hickory, and provide the same wildlife value in addition to having tasty nuts (just remember to cross-pollinate them); this is the largest-growing species

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) – crushed leaves smell faintly of apples, and this has sweeter nuts (as opposed to bitter, like the rest)

Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) – crushed leaves are also aromatic, and this species is tolerant of dry sites; nuts are slightly sweet


For bug enthusiasts like me, Hickory is a great tree to have around as a food source for our beloved wild silk moths; among them, the beautiful Luna moth is the species most attracted to Hickory, Pecan and the related Walnut. Just this week we’ve had several encounters with Luna moths – we have had one wild male resting on plants near the office and a brood of hand-reared adults hatch out, lay eggs (oops! You can ask Carol Allen and me about the fun experience of raising them) and disperse. We’ve also had a visit from a male Imperial Moth and a Banded Sphinx Moth. Fittingly, National Moth Week just passed (July 23-31; have fun visiting http://nationalmothweek.org/ )! I always loved rearing insects as a child – mostly this family of moths, various butterflies and praying mantis – and, while the work involved is more daunting now, it’s still fun to dabble in now and then when the opportunity presents itself. Hickory trees may be common in our woodlands but they’re not common in our neighborhoods and school grounds, and I think they should be. Think of the fun for kids if they had wildlife gardens on campus and could learn about insects by raising them in the classroom! Or start tree saplings from big-seeded trees like Oak, Hickory and Pawpaw to learn how they grow. Since the trees we’re selling are so young, if you are worried about damage from lawn mowers, rambunctious kids or pets, or deer (though Hickory foliage is not high on their list), consider “caging” them in with hardware cloth or chicken fencing. [We have both in stock at present.]

Moths aside, Hickories always light up the autumn woods in golden yellow and take our demanding weather in stride. A tree planted today should last for many human generations and provide for a multitude of wild animal generations alike.

by Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Buyer

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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