Missouri's Hickories

Economically and culturally important

While the wood of Missouri's white oak may be best suited for barrel staves, the wood of hickory trees seems destined to form the handles for many of our tools. Its more savory use, however, is cooking and smoking meats. The smell of barbecue on a warm summer evening is an unmistakable delight, and more often than not hickory wood provides the heat, smoke and flavor.

Hickory is one of the most common woods in everyday use. It is heavy, hard, strong and impact resistant. It is the preferred wood for striking-tool handles such as axes, picks, hammers and hatchets. Early settlers used hickory in the hubs, rims and spokes of wagon wheels. Besides its use in handles, better grades of hickory are used today in furniture and wall paneling.

Historically and ecologically important

Hickory is an important part of Missouri's oak-hickory forest. Eight species of hickory are found in Missouri. We know that numerous species of hickory were also in the ancient forest of Europe, northern Africa, Asia and North America before the Ice Age.

Many hickory species have disappeared and today there remain 17 species worldwide. There are two each in mainland China and Mexico. The other 15 are found in the central hardwood forest of the eastern and southern United States and Canada.

Hickory nuts are important food for many species of wildlife. Squirrels, turkeys and ducks all feed on the nuts, which are often preferred over acorns.

Pecan hickories and true hickories

Hickories are divided into two major groups: the pecan hickories and the true hickories. True hickories have mostly five to seven leaflets with a large egg-shaped bud at the end of each twig. Pecan hickories have more than seven sickle-shaped leaflets and an elongated, flattened terminal bud.

In Missouri, pecan, bitternut and water hickory are members of the pecan hickory group. Shagbark, shellbark, mockernut, pignut and black hickory are members of the true hickories.

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Bitternut Hickory

Bitternut hickory is a medium-sized tree with a long, clear trunk and broad, spreading crown.

Leaves are alternate, pinnately compound, 6–12 inches long, with 7–9 elliptical, toothed leaflets. Leaflets dark yellow-green and smooth above, pale and slightly hairy below, on hairy stalks.

Bark is smooth and light gray when young, shallowly grooved with thin, flat, interconnecting ridges with age, not becoming scaly or shaggy.

Black Hickory

Black hickory is a small to medium tree with short, crooked branches and a narrow crown.

Leaves are alternate, feather-compound, 8–12 inches long. Leaflets usually 7, lance- to pear-shaped, 4–6 inches long, toothed; lower surface yellow-green with rusty hairs; leaf stalks with rusty hairs and tiny scales.

Bark is dark gray to black, tight, not scaly, with irregular blocky ridges and deep furrows.

Twigs are slender, often crooked, tapering abruptly to the terminal bud. Young twigs and terminal buds have fuzzy, rusty scales with tiny yellow dots.

Mockernut Hickory

Mockernut hickory is a large tree with a narrow to broadly rounded crown and stout, ascending branches.

Leaves are alternate, feather-compound, 8–15 inches long, with 5–9 (usually 7) leaflets; leaflets 3–7 inches long, 1–3 inches wide, broadest near the middle; margin toothed, upper surface yellowish green, shiny; lower surface paler, densely hairy with light orange or brown hairs. Crushed leaves smell spicy, like orange rind. Leaf stalk has dense hairs.

Bark is gray, grooves shallow; plates flat, tight, never shaggy.


The pecan is a large tree with a narrow, pyramid-shaped crown in the forest, and a broad and rounded crown in the open. It is the largest of all the hickory trees.

Leaves are alternate, compound, 9–20 inches long, with 9–17 leaflets; leaflets 4–8 inches long, 1–3 inches wide, lance-shaped, curved; margins toothed; upper surface dark green; lower surface paler, smooth to hairy.

Bark is grayish brown to light brown when young, becoming dark reddish brown with age; ridges long, flat, loose.

Pignut Hickory

Pignut hickory is a medium-sized tree with a rather narrow crown, 2–4 times longer than broad.

Leaves are alternate, feather-compound, 8–12 inches long, with 5 (rarely 7) leaflets. Leaflets lance-shaped, narrow at base or near middle; margin toothed; tip tapered to a point. Upper surface yellow-green, smooth; under surface paler and smooth or hairy along veins. Bright yellow in fall.

Bark is gray, thin, tight, rough from numerous shallow, crisscrossing cracks forming close, flattened scales.

Twigs are rather slender, reddish-brown, smooth; pores pale.

Shagbark Hickory

Shagbark hickory is a medium-sized to large tree with a crown 2–4 times longer than broad and shaggy bark.

Leaves are alternate, feather-compound, 8–17 inches long; leaflets 3–5, lance- to pear-shaped, 4–7 inches long, the end leaflet stalked; upper 3 leaflets quite larger than lower 2; pointed at the tip, margins toothed with tufts of hairs along the outer edge of the teeth.

Bark is gray, separating into distinctive thick, long, shaggy strips, free at one end or both ends, curved outward.

Shellbark Hickory

Shellbark hickory is a large tree with short, stout limbs, narrow crown, and shaggy bark.

Leaves are alternate, compound, 12–24 inches long, with 7 leaflets; each leaflet 5–9 inches long, oval, broadest above the middle, edges finely toothed, dark green.

Bark is similar to shagbark hickory: gray, separating into long, thin shaggy plates hanging loosely, with ends curving away from the trunk.

Twigs are stout, dark brown to reddish-orange; pores narrow.

Water Hickory

Water hickory is a medium to large tree with a long, clear trunk, buttressed base, and narrow, irregular crown.

Leaves are alternate, feather-compound, 9–15 inches long, with 7–15 leaflets; leaflets lance- to egg-shaped, curved, 2–5 inches long, with long-pointed tip; margins finely to inconspicuously toothed. Upper surface dark, smooth; lower surface hairy, especially along veins and stalk. Yellow in fall.

Bark is gray-brown, often red-tinged, splitting into long, loose, platelike shaggy scales, brittle.